Evaluation of the Telecommunications and Information Infrastructure Assistance Program: East Austin Community Network

Laurie Somers
Austin Free-Net (AFN) in Austin, TX, a 1996 TIIAP grantee, built a community technology network on top of a low-income community’s social networks. AFN staff and partners hoped to help prepare people for better jobs and academic improvement, while at the same time saving them time in completing daily tasks. The East Austin Community Network (EACN) is a network of 41 computer stations at 11 locations throughout the neighborhood, all connected by continuous high-speed ISDN to the Internet. Significantly, EACN was built from within the community on top of the existing community social networks. AFN also developed a community website to be a hub for community communications and interaction, with spaces for community organizations, churches, schools, and other local interest items. Most pages are available in Spanish. Perhaps EACN’s greatest accomplishment is in community members’ growth in selfconfidence from mastering a new challenge. And not only do community members feel good about what they can do, but they have gained what evaluators are calling “community competence.” That is, the community has gained knowledge and skills that enable it to do more with what it has. While the project experienced some strained relations among the main partner organizations (AFN, the Austin Learning Academy, and the Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) School at the University of Texas) largely due to shared goals but different strategies, and while these issues were never fully understood, nor were they resolved, the project is seen as a success among users and staff alike. One prominent lesson learned, and likely the reason for the project’s success, is that staff worked hard to build trust among community members and access site staff. Early on, they saw the importance of listening to and knowing their customers and the buy-in that generated, and the importance of meeting the needs of the community, as determined by the community.
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