Where do we go from here? APC after the internet explosion

By Mark Surman

APC’s members were often the first providers of electronic communication technologies in their countries. The explosion of the Web was a watershed for APC and its members: there was at once tremendous competition and huge new opportunities to strengthen civil society using the Internet. The result was a multitude of new services offered by APC members, including training, Website development, web publishing software, portal sites and content, and APC strengthening its roles as a pioneer of practical and relevant uses of ICTs for civil society, and as an international facilitator of civil society’s engagement with ICTs and related concerns, in both policy and practice.

APC’s members were often the first providers of electronic communication technologies in their countries. The explosion of the Web was a watershed for APC and its members: there was at once tremendous competition and huge new opportunities to strengthen civil society using the Internet. The result was a multitude of new services offered by APC members, including training, Website development, web publishing software, portal sites and content, and APC strengthening its roles as a pioneer of practical and relevant uses of ICTs for civil society, and as an international facilitator of civil society’s engagement with ICTs and related concerns, in both policy and practice.

In the mid 1990s, the World Wide Web exploded onto the scene in many parts of the world and changed everything. With low cost Internet spreading and non governmental organisation (NGO) Websites popping up all over, APC’s global network of discussion forums (known as ‘conferences’) was no longer at the cutting edge. There was suddenly a need for something more – something that would ensure the increasingly commercial Internet would remain a powerful tool for NGOs and activists.

“The emergence of the Web was a real watershed for APC and its members,” said APC Executive Director, Anriette Esterhuysen. “There was at once tremendous competition and huge new opportunities to strengthen civil society using the Internet. The Web shattered any illusions about the Internet being an ‘equal’ space – Northern content and the English language was so obviously dominant.”

However, the opportunity for organisations in the South to be publishers in their own right had already been firmly established. In South Africa, SANGONeT embraced the World Wide Web and drew heavily on their old text-based services such as gopher to create South Africa’s first content Website in 1994 . The Third World Institute (ITeM) in Uruguay, as part of their joint NGONET initiative, also collected together analysis of international events that they had been posting in APC conferences since 1991 to create a Web-based information portal.

But the truth was that, as a network of Internet service providers (ISPs) and email providers, APC was initially thrown for a loop by the explosion of commercial Internet providers that took place in most parts of the world. Commercial providers were able to quickly undercut the prices of APC members, turning Internet access into a low cost, generic service. In addition, many APC members had a tough time convincing users that they could be more than ISPs. “It was very hard initially to get people to move beyond the idea that we were not just an Internet access provider,” remembers Vasek Klinkera, founder of Econnect, a Czech APC member organisation.

In response to these changes, APC members shifted their attention away from the nuts and bolts of connectivity and towards helping NGOs make better use of rapidly emerging new Internet tools. “We needed to move from providing technology to helping NGOs make strategic use of the Internet,” said Klinkera.

The result was a multitude of new services offered by APC members – training, Website development, web publishing software, portal sites. One example amongst many is APC’s member in Ecuador, INTERCOM’s Infodesarrollo portal site. “By developing services like Infodesarrollo, we make it easy for NGOs and grassroots groups working in Spanish to find and share information about development,” explained INTERCOM coordinator, Johana Beltran.

All APC members use the Internet extensively but they are also more than familiar with its constraints for NGO users who grapple with the relative difficulty and cost of keeping sites updated with new information, or, who, once they have their Internet connection and email account, don’t actually know how to use them most effectively for their organisation.

APC members work with grassroots organisations and they saw the need to create software and services that would promote strategic civil society use of the Internet,” said Maureen James, APC Projects and Programs Manager. “Together with our members, we created the APC ActionApps – a content sharing software that is available for free and allows no-skills-necessary updating of Website content. We are also researching quality training resources that focus on progressive use of the Internet and are available online. The materials will be collected together or linked to in a multi-language Online Resource Centre to be launched in 2001. These are practical and powerful tools that our members can use to help NGOs around the world,” James said.

APC has also focused on the question of how NGO networks could sustain themselves in a Web-based world. “Finding new sources of income became really important once our ISP services started to disappear,” said Klinkera. “It has been a big challenge.” In 1998, APC began to offer mission-driven business planning workshops, handbooks and advice to help members to face this challenge

Through initiatives like these, APC has helped its members to develop new services and continue in their efforts to ensure that the Internet is a platform for grassroots development. In an effort to offer this kind of support to others, APC opened up its membership in late 2000 to include any organisation with a commitment to empowering civil society through the use of the Internet. “We are now ready to move to the next stage of supporting civil society online,” said Esterhuysen. “We are ready to use what we’ve learned over the past ten years to create a powerful movement that promotes the civic use of the Internet in all parts of the globe.”

References

1 Telephone interview with Anriette Esterhuysen, 1999.
2 Many so-called Websites of the time were little more than a homepage.
3 Telephone interview with Vasek Klinkera, 1999.
4 Telephone interview with Vasek Klinkera, 1999.
5 Infodesarrollo Website: http://www.infodesarrollo.org – in Spanish
6 APC ActionApps survey response, 2001.
7 Interview with Maureen James, 2001.
8 http://www.apc.org/actionapps
9 Interview with Maureen James, 2001.
Telephone interview with Vasek Klinkera, 1999.
11 Telephone interview with Anriette Esterhuysen, 1999.

About the author

Mark Surman is the president of The Commons Group, a company that develops business and technical plans for online communities. His many projects have included building Canada’s most popular progressive news web site (rabble.ca), leading the development open source software for non-profits (APC ActionApps) and running a national ISP for non-profits (Web Networks). He has recently released a book entitled “Commonspace: Beyond Virtual Community”.

Source

APC Annual Report 2000

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