Community Informatics Enabling Technologies for Social and Economic Development

The Market Harborough Community Commerce and Knowledge Network


About the ComKnet Project

In 1998, the UK Government were running a grant competition called the “Multimedia Demonstrator Program” (MMDP. Its objective was to part finance consortium projects designed to encourage the adoption of multimedia and internet technologies amongst the UK SMEs. My company, Mass Mitec, was operating from a converted barn in the rural village of Lubenham, near the market town of Market Harborough in Leicestershire.

Mass Mitec was one of the most pioneering SMEs in the UK in the field of digital communications technologies such as interactive multimedia, desktop video conferencing and business presentation graphics. We had an impressive list of blue chip clients which included major banks, telecomms companies and manufacturers yet local companies who could benefit from our services typically went to large cities to find the services we could provide from their doorstep.

This scenario led us to think that social and business networking applications could be developed to facilitate both knowledge sharing and trading between companies in the same geographical community. So the idea of ComKnet was born, based on the instinctive belief that every community has a pool of untapped talent that could be harnessed to tackle issues of globalisation and foster social and economic development.

We put together a consortium of partners which included Leicester Mercury, Loughborough University, a local internet services provider amongst others and, in 1998, our project secured an award of around £250K for a two year project. We began by trying to identify local technology champions who could form the basis of a network. This took the form of a web search based on Market Harborough which, to our great surprise, revealed a local web site called Bigfern which contained many of the elements we planned to develop, including links to local history and businesses. We invited the webmaster, Frank Bingley, to come to our offices to discuss collaboration. When Frank arrived and I asked how I knew him, I was shocked to learn that Frank was my milkman and that he had put together the web site on a PC he had built himself and that he was completely self-taught.

It was a sobering thought that my milkman, without any technology education background, had shown us the way. This discovery proved the theory that every community has undiscovered and under-utilised local talent and, as the project developed, I learnt from the international conferences I attended on Community Informatics that Frank Bingley was far from unique.

Once the project was completed successfully, we were asked to create a promotional video and, in collaboration with a similar project in North Kilburn, London, we decided to record a video for a webcast that showed how community informatics could make a difference to both rural and urban communities. A tiny advert in the local newspaper asking for help to make the video turned up a volunteer cameraman and a volunteer video editor. The man who offered to do the filming, Steve Cockayne, was an ex-BBC senior cameraman who had worked on major soaps such as East Enders and Doctor Who. Steve lived in the same village as Mass Mitec yet we had never met. Bob Bridges from nearby Market Harborough offered to edit the video and Bob was a special effects expert who worked on films like Harry Potter. The video we jointly produced is an edited version of the full video and includes an interview in Downing Street with the recently appointed Govt E-Envoy, Alex Allan.

The theme of the ComKnet project video and a concept we used for community engagement was the Market Harborough connection to Thomas Cook, the travel entrepreneur who was living in Market Harborough when he had the inspiration to link the enabling technology of the 1840s, the railways, to improve the lives of hi fellow citizens. The ComKnet dream for the new millennium was to replicate his vision with today’s equivalent enabling technology, the internet.

The ComKnet video was webcast to a global audience of around 300 participants using an embryonic version of webinar technology called E-Video. I believe that we were the very first company to do such a global webcast. Sadly, the webcast technology of 2000 and the network bandwidth available were inadequate for the size of audience but every participant was able to view our presentation slides and text chat online to each other.