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Many tools exist on the 'net that make routine tasks easier.  We
all use them every day.... mail-servers, list-serves, WWW-
clients, etc.  I've been daydreaming lately about what some of
the tools might be that would be useful for community-networks.
The following list distills these daydreams.  It's intended to as
a contribution to an ongoing thought-process.
 
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MinderFinder -- community calendaring.  Organizations can use it
to post announcements of events and as a reminder-system for
members, committees, task-forces, etc.  The public uses it to
identify upcoming events of interest, get details of times,
locations, prices, etc.  It's an accessible, dynamic, filtered
database and server for community calendar information.
 
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Comsense -- automated consensus-building and priority-setting
process.  Participants can offer refinements to proposals that
increase their level of commitment to the outcome and identify
others who share similar inclinations.
 
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Poplist -- creates a listserv for anyone who wants it.  Committee
chairs, organizers, enthusiasts' clubs, etc. etc.  It's the
creator's job to get people to sign up.  The people don't have to be
subscribers to the community-net, they just need a standard InterNet
e-mail address someplace.
 
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Towncrier -- allows anyone to propose a "message of the day" for
the community net.  Some committee or other legitimate group
selects the message(s) to be posted systemwide.
 
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Piper -- (as in "pay the...").  Automatically asks for and
acknowledges support from each user of the network on a schedule
that reflects the system's needs and the preferences of users.
All sorts of support (not just $$) are requested, with a higher
probablility (but not a certainty) that users will be asked to
provide support in the forms and at the intervals they suggest.
 
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Helpline -- Automated "ask the expert".  All users are
periodically asked to volunteer their expertise by subject area
and level.  Those who do so are kept on a rotating panel.  When
others ask for help (using a predefined set of keywords and self-
described difficulty levels), the requests are forwarded in
rotation to the "next" expert on the panel.  Esperts and users
(who are, obviously, the same people wearing different hats) can
adjust their participation by sending mail to the helpline
server.
 
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Town-Meeting -- Like the usenet voting system, on propositions
put to the community by members (or by committees, etc.).
Towncrier can be used to announce the Call For Votes.  Comsense
to develop the proposals in the first place (the usenet system is
remarkably weak in its "discussion" phase, depending on an
invisible volunteer process to refine the proposal).  The voting
software used by usenet seems to be quite robust.
 
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Postbox -- delivers "mail" to any identifiable address in the
community, whether or not the addressee has e-mail, whether or
not the address is properly formed.  Familiar entries on "To:"
lines are handled automatically (with an automated response by e-
mail to the sender that advises where the mail has actually been
sent, in case it's an automated mistake).  Unfamiliar entries are
handled by "dead letter" clerks -- probably volunteers, it sounds
like fun.  The new routings are built into the database, so
future mail to the same nonstandard address can be handled
automatically.  e-mail to fax gateways, e-mail to lan gateways,
plain old nike-mail, and when needed USMail, etc., etc., are used
to complete delivery of mail.  This is stuff like letters to the
Mayor, the editor of the paper, city council members, officials
of visible businesses and nonprofit organizations, etc., etc.  It
makes the system useful when not everyone has an e-mail address.
And it puts the burden on the system, not the user, to know the
e-mail addresses of familiar figures.
 
I had fun dreaming these things up.
 
Some of them may already exist.  If so, the word needs to be
spread among the community-nets organizers.
 
Some may be simple to develop.  If so, I hope developers will let
us try them out soon.
 
But! developers please note!  These facilities are going to be used by
people who are +not+ interested by computers and don't find satisfaction
in outwitting inept interfaces.  Nancy Willard correctly urges that the
"front end" of a community network should be seamless and consistent.  I
don't know enough to have any idea how that goal is going to be met, but
I stongly share Nancy's view that it should be established early as one
of the operating standards of the movement.
 
If community-nets are going to serve the goal of building
community, tools like the ones I've described above are needed.  Tools
that address the everyday work of a community organizer, and make
it easier to do, easier for the community to respond.
 
The implication of most discussions I've seen to date is that the goal of
the community-network is to serve a "market" of individuals in their roles
as consumers and voters.  What I'm urging here is to add a goal of serving
people in their roles as leaders (and members) of associations and
organizations that perform vital community functions.
 
Putnam Barber
Seattle