When the COVID-19 pandemic challenged the whole world, the experience of communities in the rural and remote Ciracap sub-district in West Java, Indonesia, showed the importance and power of building a local response to the crisis. Through a project implemented by Common Room Networks Foundation, they relied on a community-centred approach to online access and information and communications technologies (ICTs) to address the lack of health facility information.
In mid-2020, Common Room fostered the deployment of the “Ciracap Sub-district Community Network”, a connectivity infrastructure currently managed by two local groups, while promoting capacity building and participatory processes in a region where people face many challenges to accessing information (find out more in the video below). Ultimately, this process became a path for slowing the COVID-19 outbreak and increasing social and economic resilience locally. The project also became a learning experience about the new challenges and joys involved in carrying out community processes in the middle of the life-changing COVID-19 pandemic.
Building a community response during the pandemic
Common Room – locally known as Yayasan Mitra Ruang Kolektif – is an open platform for creativity and innovation, which was registered as a non-profit organisation in 2006 and has since then kept its commitment to freedom of expression and civic empowerment in Indonesia.
Building on a previous experience in the Indonesian Indigenous village of Kampung Kasepuhan Ciptagelar, Common Room helped to set up a local Wi-Fi community network and connectivity infrastructure in Ciracap, around 100 kilometres away. It was their first project of this kind in a non-Indigenous territory. The process involved various actors from the community and the education sector, specifically two local vocational schools.
With the local infrastructure set up, the project also helped with the provision of reliable and affordable internet connectivity in this underserved area. Through a survey and stakeholder mapping, the community network fostered collaboration with the local internet service provider (ISP) and the local government administration around internet access.
“Ciracap sub-district has many internet blind spots that make it difficult to communicate daily. This project helps make it easier for people to communicate in their daily life,” explained Common Room’s representatives Gustaff H. Iskandar and Ressa Ria Lestari (Icha) in their report. To do so, the team had to deal with several issues such as finding a signal at an appropriate height given the challenges of the high trees within the coconut plantation as well as power outages.
The landscape of the Indonesian Indigenous village of Kampung Kasepuhan Ciptagelar, where Common Room had led a community networks process before the project in Ciracap. Photo: Common Room
The pandemic context
The pandemic also represented new challenges for the community networks process. As COVID-19 cases continued to increase in Indonesia, the need for internet access and connectivity experienced a tremendous increase. Common Room noted that “this led to scarcity and an increase in the price of some of the equipment needed, especially the internet network distribution devices.”
Considering that people could not physically meet, this context also introduced an extra challenge to communication flows internally and virtual articulation of the concepts and ICTs that are not part of the community’s daily life. “The COVID-19 pandemic outbreak changed communication patterns from offline to online, in addition to imposing restrictions on community activities,” explained Common Room’s representatives. The online remote communication could became an obstacle to many people still unfamiliar with it.
The collaborative approach was the effective and empowering way to deal with the new emerging challenges. “Collaboration between communities and institutions is one of the important keys for the successful implementation of this project,” recognised Common Room.
The joys of an experience to be replicated
The collaborative approach allowed the project to get support in different ways, such as through additional funding from the Medco Foundation and the Digital Access Programme (DAP) in Indonesia to make up for the devices shortfall. Schools and small business enterprises hosted access points of internet connectivity.
Support from related parties – such as from the ISP company Awinet, the ICT volunteer organisation Relawan TIK and the civil society organisation ICT Watch Indonesia – and from the local schools, including the SMK Eka Nusa Putra informatics engineering vocational school and the Al-Muhtadiin Islamic boarding school, greatly helped by bringing together people with diverse abilities and backgrounds. With them, several training and capacity building sessions were organised in 2020 and 2021 to support the existing local community network in Ciracap sub-district.
“Through this project, students could put their learning experience into practice at the project site. Some of the local technicians were also given certain training and workshops, so that their capacities and skills are increasingly developing,” reported Common Room, pointing out a potential positive impact on employment opportunities for those involved in the capacity-building activities.
The SMK Eka Nusa Putra informatics engineering vocational school in Ciracap. Young students from it have been joining training activities on community networks. Photo: Common Room
By building this network from and for the community, the initiative created an enabling environment for increasing people’s digital skills locally and empowering small and medium-sized enterprises.
Furthermore, internet access in the context of the pandemic brought significant impacts in terms of access to health information, remote education and online communication in times of social isolation.
A COVID-19 pandemic response team and volunteer group was established to deal with the ongoing changes in life, with support from the local government in the Ciracap sub-district and the Ciracap COVID-19 Task Force.
The community network infrastructure became a way of providing access to reliable sources of information and knowledge about the pandemic conditions and the roll-out of the vaccine in Indonesia. “This was carried out through the use of community-based internet services to access the reliable information and knowledge that is needed,” explained Iskandar and Lestari.
Activities in Ciracap. Photos: Common Room.
The hope of the Common Room team is that “this ongoing effort is a pilot project that is expected to become an example for collaborative efforts to develop community-based internet infrastructure in Indonesia, particularly in the southern part of West Java region.”
Some of the learning experiences from this particular project are already proving useful, since they became a learning foundation for the School of Community Networks ongoing in Indonesia. Through the school, Ciracap’s community members are meeting other organisations working with community networks in the country and continuing the training activities. “Since February 2022, we have included Ciracap in the School of Community Networks activities. We continued several capacity-building activities such as team strengthening meetings and technical training on community-based internet infrastructure development. This activity was attended by teachers and students of SMK Eka Nusa Putra,” explained Lestari.
Their experience shows that beyond connectivity, community networks could become an articulation process and learning powerhouse where people join efforts to improve their lives and respond to challenges, even major ones such as the COVID-19 outbreak.
This piece is a version of information shared by Common Room as part of the project "Connecting the Unconnected: Supporting community networks and other community-based connectivity initiatives" for the Seeding Change column, which presents the experiences of APC members and partners who were recipients of funding through "Connecting the Unconnected" catalytic grants and of subgrants offered through other APC projects and initiatives.
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