Community groups short on tech

"The Evolving Role of Information Technology in Community Development Organizations"

Although community development organizations use computers for word processing, e-mail and some database applications, few have gone beyond the basic use of information technology to transform their organizations, according to a recent report.

The report — titled "The Evolving Role of Information Technology in Community Development Organizations" — cited barriers to adoption, including the high cost of building or acquiring IT platforms and the lack of technical assistance for advanced functions, such as mapping and management software.

The Structured Employment Economic Development Corporation, or Seedco (www.seedco.org), a national nonprofit group that supports community development centers through financial and technical assistance, released the report last month.

Almost all of the community development organizations surveyed — 353 respondents — said IT improved their service delivery and internal operations. Hardware and software costs have declined precipitously, enabling such groups to afford many of the tools, according to the report.

But the report also cited a number of limitations, including:

* About one-third of the groups lack a Web site.

* Many still rely on donated equipment, which is less sophisticated in running advanced software and has higher maintenance costs.

* Organizations are "not making much use" of geographic information systems to collect community-level data because of the technical expertise required to run the software.

* Median IT spending "has not been very large," possibly because of competing programmatic and operational choices.

* Half to two-thirds of respondents do not have a dedicated IT staff member or department, and about half provide little or no IT training for staff.

The report said IT could have a positive impact on such programs as workforce and economic development, affordable housing and community capacity building. It also suggested that one way to foster IT innovation is through partnerships with colleges and universities, funders and other community groups.

Seedco, in partnership with the research unit at the City University of New York's School of Public Affairs at Baruch College, conducted the survey in February and March 2001.

The organization is engaged in a multiyear project to assess how community-based groups are using IT, and is also identifying and working with eight pilot sites that are using technology creatively to revitalize their communities.

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