Introduction: Transcaucasus Conference Explores Internet as Community Development Tool
Foreign governments, private foundations and numerous other regional organizations have done extensive work to develop Internet access in the South Caucasus and to ensure that powerful online communication tools are available for community leaders. Statistics demonstrate that usage has increased, however, many of the actors building the Internet infrastructure have realized that just having access is not enough and that more should be done to effectively use existing resources.
Project Harmony, held a conference from March 12-16 in Tbilisi, Georgia on "Internet Community Development." The conference gathered over 40 representatives from the small business and NGO communities from Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan to explore the topic with three US experts who work in the field of Internet communication and online networking.
The conference is part of the Program for Internet Community Development in the Caucasus (ICD), which promotes the use of the Internet as a community organizing tool for professionals in the region. The project fosters the development of two distinct online communities—one serving small businesses and one serving NGOs that aid refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs).
The two main goals of the Tbilisi meeting were to develop strategies for creating more online resources—especially in the languages of the region—and to increase participation in online communication among the two target communities. The objectives of the program are not an attempt to make the Internet replace human interaction, but an effort to enhance and effectively coordinate human interaction where the Internet infrastructure will permit. Despite many technical barriers, the Internet infrastructure is strong enough to support "next steps" in Internet community development.
US experts included Linda Aines, an export/import specialist from the University of Vermont; Peter Traverse, a community development specialist; and Nancy White, founder of Full Circle Associates, an online consulting team that specializes in online communication for businesses and nonprofit organizations.
US guests conducted numerous workshop sessions on creating effective and sustainable strategies for developing Internet resources to meet crucial community information needs. While the US participants conducted the majority of the sessions, the greatest resource at this conference was the group knowledge. Everyone at the event brought unique skills in Internet development, building communities, training or computer expertise, all of which play a crucial role in creating more effective Internet resources for professionals in the South Caucasus.
ICD staff expect the participants of the conference to form a loose network that can continue to explore the topic after the conference by using interactive online space. The basis of the program is that the Internet and online tools provide an unprecedented ability to meet and interact. The work in Tbilisi was an opportunity to interact offline, but cooperation continues online.
Agenda:From Theory to Practice
The Internet Community Development agenda aimed to take participants from theory to practice. Each day covered a specific theme relating to the topic.
Day 1: Vision and Assessment of Our Environment
After a welcome session with ICD director Paul Lawrence and Laura Leventis, Assistant Public Affairs Officer at the US Embassy, Nancy White conducted a visioning activity to set the tone for the week. Each participant was encouraged to think about their organizational objectives and what they wanted to accomplish during the week and with online communication. Prior to the conference, participants were asked to imagine that they were the editors of an Internet magazine in the year 2005 and to predict what some of the headlines might say. Here are some responses:
"First Online Feminist Confernce: Women and Politics"
"An Internet Jubilee in the Caucasus: 8 million users!"
"Video Chats Become an Essential Part of Our Lives"
The introductory discussion on vision was designed to build on the forward-thinking ice breaker and help everyone think about what Internet communication can be in the future as opposed to seeing just the barriers in the way.
After the discussion on vision, Linda Aines gave a presentation on technological advancements around the world and specifically in the developing world. Peter Traverse conducted the third session of the day, an interactive session on assessing community needs and establishing purpose for any community development project, but with a particular emphasis on communication projects.
Day 2: Collaboration: Across Town, Across Agencies, Across Cultures
Nancy White opened the second day during the first session with a presentation on online facilitation and different types of online collaboration. Peter Traverse continued the theme by sharing a case study on collaboration. He described his work relocating families in rural Vermont and how people who previously did not know a thing about the Internet were using it to work together more effectively with the staff from local nonprofit organizations, state agencies and other members of the project’s work group.
During the second session of the day, the group was broken into NGO and SME groups where each discussed the importance of creating a clear and realistic purpose for collaboration, whether collaboration takes place offline or online.
Afternoon sessions continued the discussions on collaboration in small groups. Peter Traverse discussed "Business Cooperatives and Flexible Networks" with one group. Nancy White and Linda Aines conducted a session on Communications and Collaboration for NGOs using the Internet.
Day 3: Planning and Building Projects
Moving from theory to practice, Peter Traverse began the third day facilitating a discussion about practical online tools. He described the use of online software that is available for businesses and NGOs in the US and asked the participants to discuss the applicability of such sites in the Caucasus. Since many of the participants already had significant experience with technical issues relating to the Internet, the conversation shifted toward how the current infrastructure can support online communication in the region now and what software is currently being developed.
Asya Sileava from Project Harmony’s IATP office in Moscow conducted the second session. Using the Russian educational sector as an example, she showed Internet applications that are assisting Russian students and academics in the Russian Internet space.
The third session of the day explored the development of pilot projects. Nancy White explained the process of developing successful pilot projects and went through the stages of a pilot project she has conducted with genetic scientists in the US who were training and communicating regularly on a research project. One participant, Nadir Kamaladdinov, put the theory into practice immediately after the presentation and explained one of his ideas for a pilot project to assist NGOs and small businesses interested in closer cooperation. His "pilot project" was to create an online dialogue between businesses and NGOs and using interactive tools to help them increase interaction. More important than whether or not this pilot is feasible or not, the presentation provided local context for how to develop and shape pilot projects.
Day 4: Growing the Network: Outreach, Marketing, Communications
Nancy White opened the fourth day of the conference discussing Internet marketing, a topic that extends beyond the traditional commercial meaning of the term. Her presentation explored issues of "viral marketing"—marketing that work like a virus, person to person, or e-mail box to e-mail box—and how others are using the speed and flexibility of the Internet to reach constituents and clients that were previously unreachable.
The second session of the day again gave business and NGO an opportunity to work separately. Linda Aines worked with business participants to discuss using the Internet to reach foreign markets. Nancy White facilitated a discussion among NGOs about using the Internet to network and build relationships.
The final session of the day featured two outside guests to the conference:
David Tarkhan-Mouravi, Head of the State Department of Information Technologies of Georgia, conducted a question and answer session about the Georgian government’s policy and plans in information technology development. He described the governmental structures that work in the sphere of information technologies and stated that creating a sound legal basis for e-business remains a key priority.
Brad Scott, Regional Director for the IREX Internet Access and Training Program, closed the day with a presentation on IREX’s work to develop Internet infrastructure in the region. IREX/IATP has taken the lead in opening public access sites in capital cities and the regions of each country.
Day 5: Implementation and Next Steps
The final day of the conference was designed to share ideas for "next steps" and to learn about new ideas that resulted from the conference. The group was also encouraged to share ideas for potential pilot projects in order to get feedback from other participants.
Paul Lawrence started a series of presentations by describing Project Harmony’s future plans to research and use online software that supports Russian and other local language interaction. A key goal of the ICD project is to explore and share options for current online software that can enhance the information projects of participants in the two target communities.
Elnur Hasanov, director of the Internet provider Ganje.net, continued the session by describing the ideas developed during the week among representatives from the small business participants. He described some of the information resources that the group will continue to discuss such as a database on business legislation, the development of CD ROMs for those without Internet access and the creation of a website that would aim to connect business in the region.
Nadir Kamaladdinov from the Center of Legal and Economic Education presented the ideas of the informal NGO working group that formed during the week. One idea from their discussions was to create a regional site on migration. Initial ideas were to include all three countries in the creation of such a resource. However, the group expressed concerns that there was still a need to create separate resources in each country before exploring the possibility of a regional site.
Lucy Roberts and Khatuna Giorgadze of the Project Harmony-Georgia office presented their pilot project to use interactive online space for Community Connections exchange. The exchange is a program of the US State Department that sends professionals from NIS countries to the US for 4-6 weeks on internship program in various fields. The CC project involved creating a site for the participants of the exchange to keep online journals and hold online discussions with their fellow interns and their colleagues who they work with in Georgia. Since the group consisted of all English speakers and finding a Russian language platform was not an issue, the project was quickly implemented and the "intranet space" was opened on March 23.
Before closing the conference, Paul Lawrence emphasized the importance of maintaining the contacts made during the week and explained that Project Harmony would spend its energy on assisting in this initiative. The ICD website and listserv are designed to give participants of the conference and others interested in Internet communication a place to exchange ideas and to learn about unique projects in the region and around the world. These resources will be developed throughout the spring and summer.
Daily Networking sessions:
Aside from formal presentations, conference participants were encouraged to use the last session each day for networking and planning with other participants and guests. The US trainers were available everyday from 4:20 – 6:00 for individual or group consultations. Several groups conducted informal meetings during this time or after dinner.
The over aim of these sessions was to work together to answer three questions: What results can each individual expect to achieve working only with the resources within his or her organization? How might involving other individuals and organizations after the conference enhance these results? What additional resources could foreign funders and the US government provide that would speed the rate of Internet communications technology in the Caucasus? (Results of these questions below in "Evaluation and Assessment.")
The informal networking sessions were also used for optional meetings where participants gave presentations on previous work with Internet development. Gafar Majidov and Ilgar Alizadeh, representatives of an Internet company called Flexible Solutions, gave a presentation on their work to develop Internet resources in Azerbaijan. They are also representatives of the World Bank portal project for Azerbaijan and reviewed the key activities of this project in their presentation.
Arman Saghatelyan from PanArmenian Network gave a similar presentation on his organization’s efforts to develop a news portal about Armenia and the region. The information on the PanArmenian site is provided in three languages, Armenian, English and Russian.
Throughout the needs assessment of the ICD program, staff quickly came to understand the importance of cooperation in Internet community development. As a result, every effort was made to include representatives of international organizations interested in the program’s goals. Fortunately, several representatives from international organizations were able to participate and their experience greatly enhanced the conference sessions.
ICD staff hopes that cooperation with these and other international organizations will expand. Implementation of the Community Connections online forum (described above) is just one of the potential applications that has been discussed.
ICD staff held a press conference on the final day of the conference to share the results of the conference and highlight the future efforts of Project Harmony and the US State Department to develop the Internet in the Caucasus. Brad Scott, Regional Director of IREX/IATP joined ICD staff and trainers at the conference and added explained more about the IATP efforts in Georgia and the Caucasus to expand Internet access.
15 local journalists attended the press conference, including one local television station. Information about the conference has appeared on Georgian television and in newspapers in each country.
Follow On Seminars in Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia
After the Tbilisi conference, the three US trainers each worked with ICD coordinators to conduct follow on seminars and workshops in cooperation with members of the ICD initiative groups. In total, approximately 300 people attended follow on meetings and seminars. ICD initiative group members played a crucial role in organizing these sessions and worked to transfer the information from the Tbilisi conference to their colleagues and partners.
Below are short descriptions of each meeting and the general themes covered:
Peter Traverse worked with the Georgian ICD coordinator, Sohie Tchitchnadze, to conduct five follow on meetings in Tbilisi, Georgia.
World Bank Georgian Development Gateway Project
Peter Traverse met with Ana Mikadze and Temur Kancheli, two members of the ICD initiative group who also work with the World Bank’s Georgian Development Gateway project. Ten staff members from the project attended the meeting, which covered numerous topics related to Internet marketing. The group discussed how to promote web resources, the development of websites, local issues related to the development of e-business and strategies to increase public awareness about the Internet.
Tengiz Chantladze, Georgian Multimedia Projects
Peter Traverse met with one of the most active Georgian initiative group members, Tengiz Chantladze, for individual consulting regarding potential Internet projects. Chantladze has several ideas for Internet development including opening a private consulting business of Internet specialists. He is also exploring options for developing a database of Internet specialists and creating online interactive space for networking with other professionals interested in Internet development.
Save the Children, Assistance Georgia, www.assistancegeorgia.org.ge
Peter Traverse met with three representatives of Save the Children’s Assistance Georgia website to discuss development and promotion of the site, which aims to support the humanitarian development community in Georgia. During the conference, Irakli Sakandelidze of Save presented the Assistance Georgia website that opened up a discussion on how the resource might be improved. Traverse discussed: strategies for website promotion locally and internationally; ways to offer more timely information; methods of working to raise the local population’s computer literacy; how to attract the attention of local companies for support; and ideas to make a website customer oriented.
International Center on Conflict and Negotiation (ICCN)
Nino Tsihistavi, a member of the ICD initiative groups who works as the co-director of ICCN, organized a meeting with Peter Traverse and seven members of the ICCN staff to discuss Internet strategies for their organization. The discussion covered topics related to the development of intranet space for organizational management, strategies for making online communication more efficient and potential applications for local NGOs.
Vake District Neighborhood
Nino Chkhenkeli from the US Public Affairs office in the US embassy initiated this meeting between Peter Traverse three members of the Vake District Neighborhood committee. The question and answer session explored how online networking strategies could connect the committee with similar community-based groups abroad. The meeting was especially interesting to Traverse who see the greatest assets of the Internet as empowering local leaders to enhance their advocacy and creativity by using online tools and reaching out to similar partners who might be geographically distant. He will explore options to connect the committee with similar groups in Vermont this spring.
Nancy White worked with the Azerbaijani ICD coordinator, Vugar Mammadov, and program director, Paul Lawrence, to conduct five follow on seminars in Azerbaijan.
Ganje.net and Ganje Agribusiness Association
In Ganje, Nancy White met with 10 NGO and SME leaders for a meeting on online communication organized by Elnur Hasanov of Ganje.net and Vugar Babayev of that Ganje Agribusiness Association, two members of the ICD initiative group. White discussed different online communication tools and the needs assessment process needed to use them effectively. Hasanov relayed information on trade leads, a topic Linda Aines covered during the Tbilisi conference.
Human Rights Resource Center
Avaz Hasanov of the Society for Humanitarian Research, an ICD initiative group member, invited Nancy White to speak to 15 NGO leaders on using the Internet around campaign efforts, specifically focusing on the international campaign against torture that was taking place at that time. Six of the ICD initiative group participants attended the meeting and each shared their own vision for how online communication could be helpful for them in their work to defend human rights. White explained the distinction of different online tools and how they could be used to enhance various aspects of a human rights campaign.
Center for Legal and Economic Education (CLEE)
Nancy White worked with ICD initiative group member Nadir Kamaladdinov from CLEE to conduct a seminar for 10 NGO leaders on using the Internet to enhance NGO-Funder relations. White discussed issues relating to building online relationships with potential funders as well as methods for improving funder transparency using the Internet. The discussion also covered topics of using online tools for internal management. Kamaladdinov, a member of a working group to improve NGO fundraising strategies, is interested in using online communication tools to coordinate the group’s communication. Four of the ICD initiative group members assisted in the presentation.
Mercy Corps International
During a half-day seminar at Mercy Corps, Nancy White met with 15 representatives from international NGOs who are responsible for information programs, health projects, small business development and computer networks. The seminar covered how the group could potentially use online tools to coordinate their work with their constituencies and with their partners working under the Mercy Corps USAID umbrella grant. The first session of the seminar explored how to conduct potential pilot project and the second session worked through actual issues presented by the participants. The meeting included a discussion on the benefits and short-comings of Azerweb, a site similar to Assistance Georgia, which aims to coordinate humanitarian aid efforts in Azerbaijan. Vitaliy Izmaylov of IREX/IATP-Azerbaijan also attended the meeting and gave an overview of IATP efforts to expand infrastructure and utilize existing resources for community development purposes.
Gafar Majidov and Ilgar Alizadeh, two members of the ICD initiative group, organized a seminar 15 people from several commercial and nonprofit organizations interested in Internet marketing. Nancy White spoke for half of the session on how online communication tools enhance existing marketing strategies. A question and answer session explored issues of increasing the number of users in the country, specifically in the business sector. Several of the participants also serve on the Azerbaijan Development Gateway project of the World Bank Group.
Linda Aines worked with the Armenian ICD coordinator, Siranush Vardanyan, to conduct four follow on seminars in Armenia.
School for International Economic Relations
Approximately 150 students from the students of the School for International Economics Relations attended this seminar, which covered issues relating to Internet access in developing countries.
IREX-Internet Access Training Program
Fifteen people, alumni from ECA exchange programs and representative of the Agriculture Academy attended this seminar, which was organized by Grigory Vahanyan, Director of the IREX/IATP program in Armenia. Linda Aines conducted a question and answer session on using the Internet to access foreign markets and potential applications of Internet tools, specifically in the agricultural sector.
GITAK, The Internet Society of Shirak; ECS (Economic Consulting Service of Gyumri); and the NGO Union of Shirak
Three members of the ICD initiative group from Armenia, Gevorg Melkonyan, Mkrtich Tchartaryan and Aram Sukiasyan, organized a seminar for 30 NGO and SME leaders in Gyumri. They discussed their impressions of the conference in Tbilisi and introduced Linda Aines, who spoke on her expertise in import/export related issues. Aines discussed her experience with small business development in the US and how her work differed in the 1980s, before Internet access existed, and how she sees the Internet enhancing the same type of activities now. Using her own website and listservs as an example, she explained how these resources are supporting international cooperation between the US and Armenia.
Aram Akheyan, and ICD initiative group member who works with World Learning, organized a meeting in Yerevan for 15 NGO representatives working to develop small business in Armenia. Akheyan and Linda Aines both gave short presentations to the group and facilitated a discussion about Internet applications for small businesses and NGOs. As with the meeting in Gyumri, participants shared e-mail addresses and will be included on a new listserv that Aines has created to link Armenians with professors and consultants in the US. During a question and answer session, Aines shared her experience with e-marketing, networking with the Internet and the potential to find business partners over the Internet.
Evaluation and Assessment
Looking back on the overall goals of the conference—to develop strategies for creating more online resource and to increase participation in online communication among the two target communities—it is challenging to immediately evaluate the results of the Tbilisi meeting and subsequent training in each country.
We consistantly asked three main questions throughout the week:
Feedback during the conference and subsequent written feedback after the event have clearly shown that without exception, community leaders know that online communication is important. The idea of asking these questions was to clearly identify what can be done now, how increased cooperation can enhance individual efforts and to make a "wish list" for funders looking ahead.
Over two thirds of the conference participants filled our written surveys. In general, over 80 percent were positive, giving the content and the logistical planning of the event either good or excellent marks.
This, however, does not address two weaknesses in the event. Respondents repeatedly asked for greater practical knowledge in regards to online communication. A second weakness was a lack of clarity of the role of technology. Some of the technical experts in the group were not very interested in online communications theory and the conference did not fully reach the goal of demonstrating the point where technology and community development meet.
One respondent advised us to narrow our goals and gather a similar audience. Without question, our goals for the week were ambitious. Yet, there was a positive development that was obvious in the survey "wish list" response. Approximately half of the respondents expressed a need for wider access, but half also listed a desire and need for further initiatives and training such as the conference.
One great success of the conference was in the discussions and recognition of the need for cooperation—a result of the answers to question #2 above. While organizers clearly stated that cross-border and cross-sector cooperation was not a primary goal of the conference, the participants themselves took advantage of the opportunity and formed new relationships. As a result of the conference, for example, a representative from an Armenian NGO has recently been working with the Armenian Chamber of Commerce to provide computer training for small business leaders. Online communication has also enhanced this process and e-mail and online forums have been actives across the border. One Azeri NGO leader with years of experience using the Internet remarked that the conference provided the first opportunity he has ever had to meet and Azeri commercial Internet provider. In short, connections were made in unexpected places. The program’s next steps will focus on enhancing these connections using the very tools it promotes.
Lessons Learned and Next Steps
What were the lessons learned as a result of the Tbilisi conference? Working with Nancy White since the conference, we have come up with a short list.
Move from theory to practice: Talking about online communication in real concrete ways is difficult and is greatly enhanced with examples. The more concrete local examples one can use, the easier it is to start discussion practice and application. Future work will focus on the development and promotion of online interactive collaboration.
Check for understanding across languages and culture: The terminology of online communication is new for everyone. Future efforts need to address the changes in this sphere and ensure that common definitions are understood.
Use visuals: All presenters used an overhead projector with Power Point slides. While this was helpful, additional written materials could have further enhanced this work and given participants something "practical" to walk away with. Unfortunately, the lack of common terminology makes this difficult.
Articulate the purpose: There is a great need to develop the concept of purpose-driven communication, a step that moves beyond technology for technology’s sake. While trainers emphasized this throughout the week, models for assessing and clarifying purpose are needed.
The list of needed follow on activities is quickly growing in the ICD program. The conference generated numerous sparks and a wave of energy. There is a unique opportunity for partnerships and creative work in the conference’s wake. Again, Nancy White has developed a list of potential next steps for consideration.
The ICD program’s conference can be seen as another small step in a long process of developing information communications technology. Organizers fell short of ambitious goals, but harvested a wealth of information in the process, information that is being actively disseminated. Most importantly, the results of the conference have demonstrated the potential and promise of integrating Internet programs into community development programs. Again, the objectives of the program have consistently shown that the Internet is not a way to replace human interaction, but a communication tool that can and will enhance and effectively coordinate community development. Access to the Internet has given community leaders access to a sea of information and data, infrastructure projects have widened access to a critical mass of community leaders and developed tools for collecting the data. The task at hand now will be to refine methods for how to use these tools and give leaders the ability to identify and solve their information needs, one of the crucial steps in community development and social change.