Measuring Social Capital in a Networked Housing Estate
First Monday

Measuring Social Capital in a Networked Housing Estate by Denise Meredyth, Liza Hopkins, Scott Ewing and Julian Thomas

Abstract
Measuring Social Capital in a Networked Housing Estate by Denise Meredyth, Liza Hopkins, Scott Ewing and Julian Thomas
This paper describes the construction of 'Reach for the Clouds', an inventive scheme to build a resident-maintained 'networked community' in Atherton Gardens, an ethnically-diverse, low-income, high rise public housing estate in Melbourne, Australia. The project was developed by the InfoXchange, a not-for-profit Internet service provider with a 'social entrepreneurial' orientation. It involves a consortium of government and community groups and draws on a combination of voluntary labour, commercial enterprise, government funding and donations of equipment by local businesses. The long term goal of the project is for it to become self-funding, and owned and operated by Atherton Gardens' residents. This requires both training and skills development as well as the creation of an enterprise base to fund the operating and capital costs of the network.

Contents

Introduction
The Reach for the Clouds initiative
Technology for social justice
Effects, causes and indices
Social capital, bridging and bonding
Conclusion

 


 

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Introduction

This paper describes the construction of 'Reach for the Clouds', an inventive scheme to build a resident-maintained 'networked community' in Atherton Gardens, an ethnically-diverse, low-income, high rise public housing estate in Melbourne, Australia. The project was developed by the InfoXchange, a not-for-profit Internet service provider with a 'social entrepreneurial' orientation. It involves a consortium of government and community groups and draws on a combination of voluntary labour, commercial enterprise, government funding and donations of equipment by local businesses. The project has been developed as a community building strategy, with the long term goal of handing the network over to residents to operate. This requires both training and skills development, as well as the creation of an enterprise base to fund the operating and capital costs of the network.

Here, we give a brief description of the project and its protagonists, consider the motivations and suppositions behind the initiative, and the difficulties which lie in evaluating such a project. In particular we examine the difficulty of engaging with conceptions of 'community', especially in a low-income, multi-ethnic population. In this context, how are the social and cultural effects of a computer network to be isolated and indexed? Drawing on the research plans and activities from the initial stages of research, we explore the strengths and limits of available models for identifying patterns of social connectedness, with a focus on social capital models.

Initial results, from interviews, focus groups and observations of training sessions with the residents indicate the need to think carefully about available frameworks for understanding social capital, especially its 'bonding' and 'bridging' components. Even in these early stages of research, it is clear that the technology will be used in a variety of ways, within and between distinct cultural and linguistic groupings. It may be that the computer network does forge closer connections between Atherton Gardens' residents (for a discussion of the relationship between virtual and face-to-face communities see Blanchard and Horan, 2000). However, this may not be its most immediate or significant effect on the lives of residents. While the agencies involved in developing the Reach for the Clouds network are primarily concerned mainly with 'bridging' forms of social capital (local communication and exchange between residents), the tenants, many of whom are recent immigrants, are more concerned with using the technology for activities that would be described as 'bonding' forms of social capital. That is, they are primarily motivated to use the computers for e-mail exchange with family and friends, usually overseas. Such diasporic communicative practices challenge simple models of place-based networks and social capital.

 

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The Reach for the Clouds initiative

The Reach for the Clouds scheme is a compelling example of an entrepreneurial partnership between a not-for-profit agency, local government, community groups and State government, with support from commercial agencies. Increasingly in Australia and elsewhere, public funding for schemes designed to alleviate the 'digital divide' is being devolved to collaborations between governments (national, regional and local), the not-for-profit sector and private businesses, sometimes brokered through universities or consultancy services (Peizer, 2000; Gurstein, 2000). Instead of seeing themselves as having to provide the equipment, training and connections needed to meet the rising tide of expectations, governments can provide incentives for the development of socially responsible enterprises with commercial potential, with the support of corporations, foundations or charitable trusts (see for example IBM, 1997). Instead of building programs from scratch, initiatives can work from the resources that not-for-profit groups or local businesses have already built up. The most important of these is the social trust and credibility that they have established with local communities.

The InfoXchange is an example of a social enterprise, which began life in 1988 as an online coordination system for emergency accommodation. Since that time, its activities have encompassed a complete range of technology services for welfare and service agencies, as well as establishing a fully searchable welfare support services database and running a weekly Infocast of material relevant to health and welfare workers across Australia. It has developed the Green PCs initiative, a scheme for recycling computers donated by business and government agencies, using long-term unemployed people (with funding from a State government employment initiative) to recondition the machines and reselling them at affordable prices to welfare groups and low-income people. The Reach for the Clouds scheme is a direct extension of these activities.

In December 1999, the InfoXchange, the Office of Housing and a number of not-for-profit organisations submitted a proposal to Multimedia Victoria, a state government agency broadly responsible for encouraging the use and production of new technologies. The proposal sought support to develop a Social and Technical Business Plan for a project to provide an Internet-ready PC to all tenants living on a high rise public housing estate in inner Melbourne. The PCs were to be loaded with standard operating software and connected to an intranet that would offer information from local and state government, welfare agencies, local retailers and utilities as well as having the potential for Internet access (InfoXchange, 1999). Eventually, it was hoped, local schools, technical education providers and universities would also contribute materials as well as federal, state and local government agencies and welfare organizations. The computer network, InfoXchange argued, would help residents to help themselves; using computers, they would be able to get up-to-date information on the services available to them as well as developing important skills that would improve their prospects of work-force participation.

The ambition to establish a self-sustaining network owned and managed by the residents is the most distinctive element of the Reach for the Clouds initiative and its key 'community building' component. Cooperative training and skill-building has been central to the scheme from its inception. The InfoXchange undertook to provide some initial training and to interest IT companies and software developers in offering training, but the residents themselves, it was hoped, would eventually become the workers and trainers on the project, as they progressed towards a resident-managed network. Initially, residents with computer skills would be employed as help desk workers and as trainers. Other residents would be invited to contribute in other ways, for instance as translators. The training was designed to be accredited by the federal government. The objective was a 'sustainable management operation'.

Despite its promise, the Reach for the Clouds initiative has had difficulty attracting funding, partly because of the limits of 'joined up government': the project was liable to be dismissed by social service providers as a 'technology' initiative, while communications agencies regarded it as properly a social policy concern. Finally, by late 2001 InfoXchange had stitched together the initial funding required. The Victorian Office of Housing committed substantial funding to rewire the buildings. Multimedia Victoria provided a grant to prepare a Project Initiation Document (PID) and the Community Support Fund gave seed funding to support research into training needs and social sustainability. The Community Jobs Program and Lucent Technologies helped to employ and train Green PCs staff. Hewlett Packard donated 70 PCs, printers, a digital camera and scanners for the training, while Microsoft offered a site licence for Windows and Office 97. The Brotherhood of St Laurence and the City of Yarra donated funds to support the training coordinator. Swinburne University secured federal funding to carry out a three year evaluation of the project.

Both the Reach for the Clouds initiative and our research on its framing, implementation and outcomes are at an early stage. Nevertheless, enough has been done to enable us to reflect on the distinctive research challenges that such a project poses. Not the least of these is the difficulty of tracking the effects of computer use, training and networked communication amongst a population that is mobile, multi-lingual and multiply disadvantaged - and that has also been subject to constant intervention from social agencies and researchers.

 

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Technology for social justice

The Atherton Gardens Estate is made up of four high-rise towers and is located in the inner city suburb of Fitzroy. The towers were completed in 1971, and are on land formerly occupied by nineteenth century working class housing. The area was identified as a slum from the 1930s onwards, and became a centre for pioneering programs of social improvement well before the construction of the high-rise. A significant number of charitable and welfare sector organisations are located around the estate, which is owned and run by the State Government's Office of Housing. The towers at the Atherton Gardens Estate in Fitzroy are designated 'family' towers and consist of 800 two- and three-bedroom dwellings. A large proportion of households are headed by single women (~44 percent) with 40 percent of households containing children. While there is a high level of resident turnover there are two key continuing characteristics of the resident population. First, the population is ethnically and linguistically diverse. There are at least 36 languages spoken with residents coming from more than 43 countries. More than half of the current tenants were born in Asia (64 percent), predominantly Vietnam. Other ethnic groups include Slavic, Turkish, and Chinese. In contrast, only 14 per cent of residents were born in Australia. Less than 40 per cent of residents have nominated English as their preferred language of communication with the Office of Housing [1]. Second, these are low-income households with a high degree of dependency on social security or other government benefit. Eighty percent receive some form of income support from the government with only 20 percent having private or other income sources.

 

Figure 1: One view of Atherton Gardens.

 

The Atherton Gardens estate has presented endemic problems for social planning since its development. Public housing in Australia has become increasingly targeted at the very poor and those with high needs (e.g. homeless, mentally ill, physically disabled and recent arrivals). Therefore inner city estates such as Atherton Gardens have become concentrations of the poor and the marginalised within areas otherwise characterised by economic success and growing affluence. The very distinctiveness of the public high rise blocks in a landscape of low rise and detached or semi-detached private housing makes them obvious targets for petty crime, local slurs and stereotyped reporting, as well as engendering a clear sense of social difference between tenants on these estates and surrounding residents.

Social problems around the estate, not necessarily caused by residents, include a flourishing and visible drug trade, graffiti and vandalism of public areas and fear of personal violence [2]. Drug dealing and gambling have been identified as a cause of violence within households and in common areas such as stairs and passageways. Residents, particularly women alone with small children, report that they are sometimes afraid to leave their apartments, even though they are keen to get to activities such as literacy classes. Public areas, such as the local shop and playgrounds, are regarded as unsafe [3]. There is little available advice on housing, tenancy issues, local facilities or referral to other services, partly because of lack of translation facilities [4]. There are residents' associations and regular tenants' forums, but these are voluntary, self-appointed and under-used. Those who work closely with residents and residents themselves have commented that although there are routine problems between neighbours on the estates, such as disputes about noise, children or pets, many families are reluctant to resolve or discuss such disputes in public tenants' meetings; instead, they prefer to be transferred off the estate [5]. Residents want to know more about tenancy issues, health and family services and about financial management, legal issues and Australian immigration procedures. They also say that they would like to have more classes on the estates, primarily in literacy but also in information technology.

 

Figure 2: A community garden near the Atherton Gardens estate.

 

It was in this context that InfoXchange conceived the Reach for the Clouds project, as a practical way to act on their corporate motto of 'technology for social justice'. The Atherton Gardens residents' life chances and those of their children are significantly affected by an intergenerational pattern of unemployment, illiteracy and social exclusion. This can only be exacerbated by the emerging digital divide between those with access to technology and skills associated with its use and those without. Many tenants say that they want to be able to use new technologies. Yet they face demonstrable barriers in accessing computer networks. Their incomes are low, and some residents would have difficulty acquiring personal computers at any price. Nevertheless, they appear to be in immediate need of new ways to communicate, both within the estate and outside it. According to community workers associated with the estates, people feel safer if they know their neighbours, the people next door and on their stairwell [6]. Connecting these apartments to one another, and to local information and communication networks, might provide a real alternative to pamphlets and poorly attended public meetings. If tenants can teach one another to use e-mail and messaging systems, they might be able to improve their safety. They may develop new skills and thereby give themselves more employment choices. Sharing both information and skills, they may be able to build a more cohesive resident community.

The InfoXchange's rationale for government funding for the programme (InfoXchange, 1999) placed great emphasis on the link between access to computers, skill-building and participation. Improvements in information skills and literacy would give residents, they argued, a 'greater voice in the wider community'. Making information available on the intranet would help residents to share information and would build better links to the agencies providing services to the residents of the estate. Residents would have more chance of knowing about local events, training and employment opportunities. Social services could be more effectively targeted to specific groups. Schools would be able to address truancy rates, by keeping up contact with parents. Health service providers would be able to use online social services as a way to make connection with the most isolated populations, such as recent immigrants, the aged and single parents. Improved security on the estate would lead to lower repair and maintenance costs. 'Skill enhancement' would mean that residents were less dependent on welfare. Ultimately, if the network became self-sustaining through the establishment of enterprises, it would be owned and managed by residents who would be active members of self-help networks, capable of teaching one another how to use new technology and able to turn these new skills into vocational competencies, re-entering the labour market and re-connecting to outside social networks.

As the Project Implementation Document notes, however (InfoXchange, 1999), making the network self-sustaining depends on ensuring that each of the main ethnic groups on the estate is represented. This means encouraging the involvement of young people who might be willing to pass on computer skills and enthusiasm to their own families and neighbours. It also means that, in the decision-making processes, it will be important to have the involvement of those recognised as leaders within each cultural group (and this of course presumes that residents will themselves be able and willing to identify both the groupings and the leaders, in a reasonably uncontroversial manner). The InfoXchange also express the hope that the computer network will also be able to gain the involvement of residents from the different types of household on the Atherton Gardens estate, from older people living in couples or on their own to families with young children and single-parent households.

This will be a challenge. There is of course no guarantee that people on the estate will use the computers, or the network, once it is established - although to date the tenants express considerable enthusiasm. Nor is it going to be easy to achieve some of the more ambitious aims of the InfoXchange initiative, especially those that involve establishing a co-operative training network linked, eventually, to small business support and employment opportunities. The most immediate obstacle lies in equipping people with limited literacy levels and a variety of first languages to understand how the machines function and how to access the network. Some of this can be accomplished through a systematic training program provided on site. It may be that this will also happen within households, especially where there are school-aged children, but it will also have to happen within ethnic and language groups. Unless residents are willing to get involved, then this will be a "weak communications network that is at risk of failing", as the InfoXchange puts it (2000).

 

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Effects, causes and indices

Our research task, in evaluating the social impact of the Reach for the Clouds initiative, is a complex one, in part because our research must meet the needs and interests of a number of industry partners. The research program, over three years, will use a combination of qualitative and quantitative analysis. Interviews have been held with most of the players in establishing the network and in bedding it down on the Atherton Gardens estate. A series of preliminary focus groups have been held with tenant groups to assess levels of social capital and community participation. A survey has also been implemented; this will be used as a base measure of the tenants' skills in using technology, their expectations of the computer network, their attitudes to living on the estate and their patterns of social interaction, both before the network is fully established and after it has been functioning for some time. The first round of interviews in this survey has recently been completed with approximately 200 residents, representing just over one quarter of the households on the estate. A second inner-city Melbourne housing estate, without a computer network, will also be surveyed as a control group.

Our first step, in interviews and initial focus groups, has been to explore the aspirations associated with InfoXchange's initiative. There are at least five linked aims: to give tenants access to free computers and software; to provide training in Information and Communication Technology (ICT) skills; to provide a local intranet as well as access to the Internet; and to build resident involvement, ultimately making both the network and the training resident-run and self-sustaining. The industry partners in the research have distinct expectations, however: the Office of Housing is understandably concerned with the social impact of the computers and the computer network, as a means to promote communication between tenants and to link the estate to social service providers. The Primary Health Branch is more interested in e-governance and provision of online information to client groups.

Some of these effects can be tracked relatively easily. Through surveys, focus groups and interviews with trainers and trainees, the research team will be able to gauge the development of residents' information technology skills, the extent to which the computers and the network are used and some of the uses to which they are put. Translation will present a problem, though this may be offset by involving residents from the estate and by drawing on the resources of the Office of Housing and other agencies. Without impinging on residents' privacy, it will be difficult to show exactly how much use residents make of the information provided by social service agencies, though the surveys and focus groups, in combination, will show broad patterns of use.

Harder to test will be success in achieving the stated aim and purpose of the project to:

  • Improve the social, economic and environmental circumstances of the Atherton Gardens Community, a public housing estate in Fitzroy; and,
  • Strengthen the capacity and cohesiveness of the community and its networks (Infoxchange, 2001).

One of the theoretical resources available to us is a body of work on "social capital" as a model for understanding community well being. Existing research has indicated an important relationship between stores of social capital and positive outcomes for health (House et al., 1988; Baum 1999), education (Coleman 1988; Teachman et al., 1997), effective governance (Putnam et al., 1993), sustainable development (World Bank, 1999), economic growth (Knack and Keefer, 1997) and human well-being (Bullen and Onyx, 1999; World Bank, 1998). Not surprisingly, many social researchers have begun investigating holdings of social capital in diverse communities both in Australia and around the world.

Social capital, however, is a problematic concept. Researchers have frequently used Putnam's definition as their starting point; that is, social capital as the "features of social life - networks, norms and trust - that enable participants to act together more effectively to pursue shared objectives" [7]. Such intangible features are relatively easy to describe but harder to measure. Measurement of social capital and its use as an analytical tool for assessing the effectiveness of development programs in education, health, civics and economics is affected by the researcher's choice of context within which to examine relationships (family, neighbourhood, region, nation), by the heterogeneous or homogeneous nature of the subject group, by the inclusion of informal as well as formal relationships and by the nature of horizontal and vertical divisions within society.

There is also an important question regarding the different dimensions of social capital through stocks of 'bridging' capital (weak ties between numerous people) in comparison to 'bonding' capital (strong ties within small groups) (Woolcock, 1998). Thus, whereas small, tightly knit groups may function well and assist their own members with practical, emotional and financial aid, they may also be exclusionary and even hostile towards perceived outsiders. On the other hand, where groups are more loosely connected and overlapping, bridging social capital may be of little value on a day to day level, but come into play when a member requires resources which are beyond his or her immediate social circle's ability to provide (Granovetter, 1973).

In this initial research phase, our concern has been to adapt the vocabulary of social capital theory so that we can think ahead to the problem of tracking changing patterns of social exchange between households on the estate, both in person and in electronic form, while adapting the frameworks to accommodate patterns of interaction between distinct cultural and linguistic groupings. In the process, we have moved away from a model in which the Atherton Gardens residents are regarded as (actually or potentially) part of a single 'community', which might be made more cohesive though the impact of a computer network. Instead, we have approached the research problem of assessing the impact of the computers, the training, communication and information, within a more complex map of associational connections and relations between groups. In holding our first round of focus groups on the estate, we discovered how ambitious these aspirations were. What follows is a brief account.

 

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Social capital, bridging and bonding

To reprise, one of the aims of Reach for the Clouds is to enhance social capital (in our formulation). Any evaluation must therefore involve examination of social capital on the estate before the implementation of Reach for the Clouds, as well as an assessment of social capital during and after the roll out of computers and connection to the intranet. This necessitates examining networks across a number of fields, to allow for a complex picture of levels of trust, communication, participation and sociability within a highly diverse and fragmented social group. Using the social capital model is a useful way to ensure comparability between our results and those collected by the numerous other researchers currently conducting social capital research with different groups.

As an initial step in investigating social capital on the estate and to help us frame the questionnaire for the survey component of the study it was decided to run focus groups on this issue (see Hopkins (in press) for a detailed report on the outcomes of the focus groups). By asking the same questions of various groups we hoped to be able to ascertain people's levels of inclusion within certain groups. The questions were based on a model of social capital developed by the Institute for Social Research in conjunction with Project Partnerships. As Project Partnerships was interested in three estates including Atherton Gardens it was decided to run the focus groups across the three estates. The estates are comparable enough in location, structure and resident background to assume that issues across the three would be broadly similar. The social capital model utilised indicators which have been used by other researchers, in particular the Australian Bureau of Statistics, who have begun to conduct broadly based surveys of social capital across the spectrum of the Australian population (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2000). We also tried to incorporate similar values to those used by other researchers who have conducted field interviews around the concept of social capital: in particular Bullen and Onyx in New South Wales (1999) and Stone and Hughes in Victoria (2001). The theoretical framework for the development of the indicators drew heavily on the work of Woolcock (1998) and others (see Hopkins, 2002). However, none of the existing models for indexing social capital fully accommodated the complexity and diversity of the Atherton Gardens population. It was evidently undesirable to attempt to 'average out' the heterogeneity merely to simplify the researchers' task. Instead, it seemed important to identify what the important groupings were within the estate and to establish the nature of the fault lines that divided social groups from each other.

It seemed sensible to start with the most obvious divisions between disparate groups on the estates: that of the different language groups. Each focus group would include members of groups who already participated in certain activities, such as sports or English classes. This meant that people would feel comfortable participating in a group with other people who were already known to them. It also meant that we could organise for language specific interpreters to be present at each session.

The groups that participated included a good cross section of the resident population, including English, Vietnamese, Cantonese and Mandarin speaking people, young people (with the sports activity group), elderly people, women and men. The groups covered a reasonably broad spectrum of ethnicities, languages and ages, although the sheer diversity of the high rise populations means that these groups are by no means representative of the entire body of residents. The major ethnic groups of Vietnamese, Chinese and Anglo-Saxon were represented, with a couple of individuals belonging to minority groups also attending. Significant minority groups such as Turkish, Greek, Spanish and Macedonian were not represented. Nor were there any indigenous participants. Provision was not made for participants with disabilities to attend, nor was child care available (although participants were able to bring their children with them if they wished). In total less just under one hundred individuals participated in the focus groups, out of a total population of more than 5,000.

Participants were asked a set of questions about their social networks and support structures: whether their friends lived on the estate or outside and if they knew their neighbours. Who would they go to with a minor problem (leaking tap, telephone not working, etc) and with a major one (serious illness, accident, breaking up with a partner)? Did they participate in groups and group activities, such as shopping, childcare, language classes, skateboarding and so on? Why or why not? We asked whether they shopped locally or in other suburbs, and whether they felt comfortable, welcome and safe in shopping there. The use of local services and facilities was explored, including the local neighbourhood house, health centre, library and swimming pool; participants were also asked about involvement in local groups and residents' associations, and about the extent to which they followed political decision-making at the estate local, state and federal level. Questions were asked on whether respondents trusted people that live on the estate, as well as outside organization such as the Office of Housing, police, security guards and local councillors. The group was asked to comment on whether members had been badly treated because of their country of birth, religion, language and so on. Other questions explored whether people on the estate got along well together and what might be done to improve things. Did they like living on the estate? Would they move if they could?

Language clearly emerged as a major fault line between residents, with those whose English is poor or non-existent (or who are not confident in using their English) isolated from the wider population and dependent on relationships within their own language and ethnic group. While this limits the development of common feeling across groups, it is a powerful reinforcement of relationships of mutual dependence within each group. Thus, neighbours who speak the same language are more 'neighbourly' than those who can only nod or smile at each other in the corridor. Even the groups whose members have friendly relationships, and who see each other often, maintain a certain wary independence. In general, and unsurprisingly, most people would ask for help from a family member or friend before they would ask a neighbour. Questions about trust generally elicited answers suggesting that interpersonal trust was very low, again particularly between ethnic and language groups. The presence of a large number of drug users and drug dealers also contributed to a low sense of trust in strangers, especially as it is not always possible to tell who may be involved in illegal activities. There is little evidence of willingness to discuss such problems amongst Atherton Gardens' residents as a whole. More than one group at each estate said they had never heard of their own residents' association, despite provision for interpreters at meetings and translation of printed information.

Participation in local groups and activities also seems to follow language and ethnic divisions, with Chinese and Vietnamese residents choosing to shop where they can both communicate with shopkeepers and buy culturally specific foodstuffs. Despite the presence of a large number of charitable agencies and service providers clustered around the high rise estates, particularly in Fitzroy, few people mentioned accessing their services. Levels of tolerance and discrimination are also reported as being quite variable. Whereas those who tended to stick to their own ethnic groups, to shop in areas with Chinese and Vietnamese shopkeepers and to do most activities with other group members reported that they had never been discriminated against or experienced racism or prejudice, younger respondents - perhaps less well connected with ethnically based social groups - reported verbal abuse, spitting and bullying of children on the basis of race and appearance.

What the focus groups indicated is that there is no real sense of the residents of Atherton Gardens as having a singular corporate identity. Identity, belonging and social connections exist within language and ethnic groups, within kinship and friendship networks and to a limited extent within individual floors of each tower. Within these smaller groups, however, there can be very high levels of mutual support, friendship, trust and reciprocity. It is necessary to look for the norms and networks that exist within subsets of the estate population, rather than the estate as a whole. In social capital terms, although bonding capital within some language and ethnic groups is high, bridging capital between ethnic groups and between estate residents and the wider community is low to non-existent.

Given these findings, our research task is even more complex: it is harder to predict how the computer network will alter these patterns. It will be a challenge to chart the patterns of interaction that pre-existed the full rollout of the computer network, and to identify indices of change after it has been in operation. Despite efforts to build into the focus group questions some indices of social connectedness, trust and associational membership, in common with comparable studies of social capital, the very nature of the high rise population makes comparability of results problematic. Defining a level at which 'community' exists is difficult, and whereas social capital can be seen to be very high within small enclaves ('bonding' capital), networks and relationships between groups often appear weak or non-existent ('bridging' capital). There is also another dimension of social relationships between residents of the estate and their friends and family living elsewhere in Melbourne, Australia or overseas. The axes along which elements such as trust appear are so complex and fragmented that generalising to the whole group or population is virtually impossible.

This point has been demonstrated in a slightly different way through the experience of the training program, which has been an integral part of the Reach for the Clouds project from its inception. Infoxchange understood that simply providing the technology would not be enough for a population that was likely to have little experience using computers.

A steering committee consisting of professionals with computer and/or training experience was established to develop the training approach and relevant materials. Initially the training was conceived as being delivered in modules with 'students' undertaking relatively formal classes. The key components of the training were an introduction to computers and the Windows environment, word processing, navigating the Internet and the use of e-mail. Each of these four components was to be a module to be undertaken over four two-hour sessions. This was later abbreviated so that the entire course was delivered in one series of four two and a half hour sessions. When the Reach for the Clouds project was first conceptualised (1999), the training was to be managed by recruit.net, a not-for-profit employment and training agency and the development of the training carried through an ethos of imparting 'job-ready' skills with the opportunity for an accredited diploma for those students that completed the course.

Our interviews with trainers and one of the authors' experience in conducting training suggest that the initial development of the training component underestimated the difficulty of multi-ethnicity and the linked but separate problem of levels of illiteracy and the widely divergent backgrounds of the students in terms of their education, work experience and level of interest in gaining a job. The training evolved into a very informal process where students pursued their own interests and received guidance from the volunteer trainers. Those who had recently arrived from other countries were most interested in quickly working out how to send e-mail and then e-mailing friends and family in their countries of origin. Whilst the agencies involved in Reach for the Clouds were interested in the place-based and capacity building aspects of the training program such as joining in group activities in a common class and developing skills that would enable greater workforce participation, participants, at least initially, have shown greater interest in communicating with existing friend and family networks via e-mail. In other words in terms of social capital analysis, participants in the training are more interested in activities oriented to 'bonding' social capital (reinforcing bonds within family or cultural groups) than those likely to foster 'bridging' social capital (building links between social groups). We will continue to investigate the implications of this observation.

 

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Conclusion

The 'Wired High Rise' project is an attempt to evaluate the large, complex and multifaceted project that is the 'Reach for the Clouds' initiative. Both projects are still in their early stages although the Wired High Rise evaluation has already undertaken the first round of primary research with tenants to establish baseline data for comparative purposes. Conceptual and logistical complexity is to be expected in such a project, especially given the range of expectations held by different partners and protagonists and the heterogeneity of the resident population.

There are good arguments for persisting with an approach that does not focus exclusively on the simplest, immediately observable effects of putting computers into these households and wiring the housing estate. Whilst an increase in residents' technology skills and confidence with technology would be a positive result for individuals, the scope of the project is much wider, and has many more interesting aspects. There can be little doubt about the benefits of giving isolated people access to e-mail and word processing, or involving them in training activities, but what we do not know is what the effects of these skills and activities will be in terms of community exchanges, communication, participation, trust or 'social capital'. Nor do we know what the effect of new social networks (if they develop) will be on the networks that currently exist. We will continue to explore these questions over the next two years, on the understanding that there are unpredictable outcomes to be expected from a project of this scale. Approaching the study with a more complex understanding of how multiethnic and diasporic groups might use computer networks if they are enabled to build and use them in unpredictable ways will lead to a much richer appreciation of the role which technology can play in overcoming social and economic disadvantage. End of article

 

About the Authors

Dr. Denise Meredyth is a Senior Research Fellow and leader of the Citizenship and Social Policy Program with the Institute for Social Research at Swinburne University of Technology in Hawthorn, Victoria, Australia. Her research interests include education policy, especially civic and citizenship education, multiethnicity, governance and pluralism, information policy, community-building, cultural policy, the digital divide and wired communities.
E-mail: dmeredyth@swin.edu.au

Dr. Liza Hopkins is a post-doctoral fellow working on the Wired High Rise project. She comes from a background in social research, and recently completed a PhD at the University of Melbourne with an ethnographic study of contemporary villagers in north-eastern Turkey. She has worked in numerous other countries including Jordan, Syria, Uzbekistan and, most recently, Pakistan, and as a researcher and writer in fields as diverse as archaeology, mental health and communication.
E-mail: lhopkins@swin.edu.au

Scott Ewing has been with SISR since 1997 as a researcher and teacher in the Graduate Housing distance education program. His major role for the next three years is managing the ARC funded Wired High Rise Research. This research is following and evaluating an ambitious project to provide the residents of a high rise public housing estate in inner Melbourne with computers and access to appropriate training and network services. In addition Scott will be continuing his work on AHURI funded housing research and teaching into the Graduate Housing distance education program.
E-mail: sewing@swin.edu.au

Dr. Julian Thomas is Director of the Electronic Policy Project at the Institute for Social Research, Swinburne University of Technology. His main interests are in cultural history, new media and information policy. Prior to taking up his current position, he taught at RMIT, worked on the Productivity Commission's broadcasting inquiry, and was a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Key Centre for Cultural and Media Policy at Griffith University for several years.
E-mail: jthomas@swin.edu.au

 

Acknowledgments

This project was funded by the Australian Research Council and supported by the Victorian Department of Human Services (the Office of Housing and Primary Health) as industry partners. The research team has benefited greatly from the contributions of Dr. David Hayward, a Chief Investigator on the project. We are also grateful to the residents of Atherton Gardens, to Mark Daniels, Rosalind Vincent, Christine Nunn, Julie Rawson and the staff of InfoXchange, especially the Director Andrew Maher.

 

Notes

1. McNelis and Reynolds, 2001, p. 15.

2. Guinness, 2000, p. 2.

3. Guinness, 2000, p. 12.

4. Guinness, 2000, p. 13.

5. Ibid.

6. Guinness, 2000, p. 12.

7. Putnam, 1995, p. 67.

 

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Editorial history

Paper received 11 September 2002; accepted 19 September 2002.


Contents Index

Copyright ©2002, First Monday

Copyright ©2002, Denise Meredyth

Copyright ©2002, Liza Hopkins

Copyright ©2002, Scott Ewing

Copyright ©2002, Julian Thomas

Measuring Social Capital in a Networked Housing Estate by Denise Meredyth, Liza Hopkins, Scott Ewing and Julian Thomas
First Monday, volume 7, number 10 (October 2002),
URL: http://firstmonday.org/issues/issue7_10/meredyth/index.html





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