A socio-technical information infrastructure for health promotion in Ontario

The goal of this infrastructure development initiative is to combine the efficiency of a market perspective with the comprehensive, collaborative and broad perspective of health promotion organizations and public initiatives in Ontario in order to effect healthy change. In order to accomplish, this we build on a comprehensive information infrastructure model which addresses organizational, social , content, and technical aspects of the proposed infrastructure. More specific organizational, service and technical explanations follow together with implementation strategies, cost implications, and performance criteria.

Organizations collaborate for a variety of reasons. A competitive market model (Cash & Konsynski, 1988) suggest that chief among these are: the possibility of new market entrants, attraction of new clients, control of supply, development of new products, as well as dealing with traditional competitors. When organizations agree on response to such competitive pressures, they design their shared information infrastructure to economize on cost, differentiate their particular products and establish a strong presence in the identified market niche. The intent of this section of the proposal is to apply comprehensive focus to an admittedly complex undertaking. It is not necessary to know the full technical details of the underlying systems. However, if the interconnection of the various layers in the information infrastructure, as presented is ignored, the effort can fail even with the best intentions, staff and support.

The following model is an adaptation of one recently (1996) presented by Clement and Shade to the Internet Society meeting in Montreal. While their presentation addresses public policy considerations of public access to the developing information infrastructure, their model is a comprehensive one which provides a sound and supported (Laudon, 1985; Laudon & Laudon, 1991; Schuler, 1994; Schuler & Namioka, 1993) framework for planning and development. It is also consistent with the system development perspective at OPC. In our earliest communications, we described our system as ‘a human network supported by a technical one’.

The model has seven layers. Uppermost layers represent the organizational and social considerations for a working system. Middle layers consider service providers and service content while the lower layers address the technical components. Each of these layers interact. In order for a system to be responsive, participants, stakeholders and users must have explicit opportunity to shape all levels.

In the first column is the key question associated with the specific layer of the information infrastructure. How the identified organizations can contribute to the answer is suggested in the adjoining column. This is not an attempt to speak for these organizations, only to serve up plausible considerations in aid of further participation and discussion.

Current contributions and challenges of organizational participants

Layers of the Socio-Technical Architecture

(Clement & Shade, 1996)

Centre for Health Promotion

Ontario Prevention Clearinghouse

Health Promotion Resource Centres

Ministry of Health

7 – Governance: How can a participative, accountable, responsive, and adequately funded structure be created?

Extensive network of collaborators and supporters. Experienced in managing distributed projects and researchers. Challenge to respond to broader, more diverse network.

Pro-active and adaptive organization with experience in organizational change. Proponent of inter-sectoral efforts. Challenge to lead without dominating.

Experience with public issues and regional and membership accountability. Challenge to integrate into broader health promotion infrastructure.

Encouragement of innovation, broad participation. Challenge to support with policy and funding.

6 – Literacy/Social Facilitation: How will people within the organizations get the literacy, numeracy, technical assistance and other skills necessary for working effectively and efficiently?

Strong skills in traditional reporting and publication. Challenge to integrate efforts into new ‘virtual’ venues.

Comparatively strong internal skills and support staff in these critical areas. Growing demand for more skills training. Challenge to extend these opportunities to other participants.

Disparity of skills and assistance in these areas. Challenge to learn new ways of working while under constrained funding.

Supportive of training and shared technical assistance. Challenge to ensure equity between information ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’

5 – Service Providers: Which organizations and systems will provide network access to users?

Network access through University of Toronto. External projects not supported electronically.

Participating member of ONET with extensive use of Web Networks for external projects.

Various providers with differing levels of service and utilization.

Government of Ontario.

The shared challenge is to ensure that, regardless of service provider, each participating organization and individual can use and contribute to the virtual workplace. This area of network services is changing rapidly. Commercial competition and mergers abound. The Ontario government is involved in at least two initiatives which may have impact on health promotion – OPNet and the Volunteer initiative. At the same time, the proposed infrastructure must consider current providers, free-nets, school-nets and others as systems for reaching the broader public.

4 – Content/Services: Which services will people actually use?

Users of electronic mail. Initial WWW effort.

Extensive experience with email, online conferences, databases, electronic publishing and the WWW.

Growing use of electronic mail. Some use of WWW.

Extensive use of email. Limited or no access to WWW resources.

The challenge here is to ensure that each participant and stakeholder in this initiative has a basic level of access to the services available through the internet. While electronic mail is and will continue to be a major component of the infrastructure, additional content and services will migrate into this electronic space. Each of the organizations must be able to access available content in order to coordinate new developments for efficient use of resources.

3 – Software Tools: Which browsers, mail, search engines, authoring and mounting tools are easy to use, powerful and inter-operable?

WWW authoring and mounting contracted out. Software selection guided by UofT practice.

Supports Netscape and has integrated inter/external system based on MSMail. Using combined UNIX and NT server strategy with goal of client access via any browser. Establishing remote access for staff and authorized access for distributed teams.

Variety of systems in use, but insufficient info to describe in detail.

Large, complex, centralized and controlled information system with restricted access to some of these. Limited ability to influence innovation and change.

The challenge is to ensure the availability of easy to use communication, searching and publishing tools. Individual staff should be as comfortable with these as they are with word processing or spreadsheet applications. This is not to mean that there must be enforced standardization of software tools across all organizations. It does mean that the software used must be able to work together. Training will shift from how use a particular application to how to work effectively together using available software tools.

2 – Devices: Which physical devices will people need?

PC/DOS and Windows. Dial up connections.

Using PC / Windows for Workgroups workstations and laptops. Exploring shift to Windows95/97. Each device with modem and / or direct network connection.

Mixed Macintosh/PC/Windows. Some with dial up connections.

PC/DOS dominant as of 1995. Connected to LAN with limited Internet access.

The challenge is to ensure that the devices in use are all capable of basic Internet and WWW access. In some instances, this will mean significant expenditures. New devices currently in development may reduce this cost.

1 – Carriage Facilities: Which network facilities will carry and store the messages?

Dial up connections and message storage to UofT. Frequently overloaded.

Direct 56kbs Internet connection and external ISP via Web Networks and others.

Web Networks and other dial up providers.

Government of Ontario facilities.

Rapid growth of online services presents an enormous technical challenge to the entire Internet. Demand for increased bandwidth (signal carrying capacity) is being met through a variety of initiatives. If growth exceeds capacity either in individual organizations or across the system as a whole, there will be major technical, service and organizational problems.

From the OPC’s perspective, the Ministry of Health continues its practice of providing incentives to participate in an evolving information infrastructure. First, there was the initial approval of computerized information and communication systems when we opened our doors in 1985. With these infrastructure resources we had the opportunity to integrate system development with organizational growth. A series of supportive decisions enabled us to expand and adapt these systems through a period of organizational growth and enormous technological change. More recently, we were supported in connecting our communication systems with the Ministry, other health promotion resources centres, and community based health initiatives. In the past year we were able to establish a cooperative World Wide Web presence. This initiative to establish a focal Ontario presence in Health Promotion by building on the competencies of lead organizations is another incentive in the right direction.

In the emerging new world of virtual workspaces, instant access to both information wealth and info junk, rapid changes to end user tools, software and communication methods new structures, resources and skills become prominent. Informed decision making takes place in consultation with a broader network and in shorter time cycles. Information resources are developed in response to current concerns and presented in a useable way on an as needed basis. Sam Lanfranco, an economist at York University, calls this ‘just in time learning’. As mentioned earlier, skills will shift emphasis from particular applications to the inter-woven collaborative processes which they are supporting.

An early example is provided by our own slightly more than one year experience on the World Wide Web as an information provider. First, and to this day still a major focus, we provided the equivalent of electronic brochure type information. This was extended to support other Health Promotion Resource Centres which has provided them with early learning and exposure and identified valuable development lessons. These are now being applied to this proposal.

From electronic information we are moving to electronic transactions with our users. Congress VII saw online registration processing from participants. Another pilot demonstrated the feasibility of making program information available for searching online with any graphical WWW browser. This will be the basis for making health promotion information broadly available and using staff consultants to provide the adaptation and explanation of same for particular requests. Most recently, and again growing from Congress VII, is a desire to extend interest group interaction beyond a face to face event. We have an extensive history in using computer communications for groups and project management (see http://www.opc.on.ca/confs.html). The goal is to make it easy for these groups to assemble and work together in open or restricted spaces using whatever communication connectivity they currently have without requiring extensive technical assistance intervention.

This current initiative extends the collaborative, open development of this infrastructure more formally to the Centre for Health Promotion and other Resource Centres. Changes in the consulting and research services at these organizations are begin noticed. Almost certainly these will continue, if not accelerate. We do not presume to predict these in detailed accuracy. By presenting a comprehensive architecture we intend to ensure that we can identify areas of change, promote understanding of the potential inter-acting effects, and ensure effective and efficient participation in shaping all levels of the infrastructure.

In the accompanying three diagrams, the components of the proposed information infrastructure are presented with additional detail. First, is an overview of the organizational changes proposed and anticipated. Second is an overview of the evolution of information service capabilities being proposed. These will support the various programs and initiatives proposed elsewhere in this proposal as well as provide a foundation for new initiatives and expanded collaboration with other organizations. Third is a more technical diagram describing the hardware, software and connectivity items requested in the budget.


Clement. A, Shade, L. (1996). What do we mean by ‘universal access’?: Social Perspectives in a Canadian context. Proceeding of INET96: The Internet: Transforming Our Society Now. Montreal, June 25-28, 1996. <http://info.isoc.org/conferences/inet96/&gt;

Laudon, K.C. (1985). Environmental and institutional models of system development: A national criminal history system, Communications of the ACM, 28(7), 728-740.

Laudon, K.C., Laudon, J.P. (1991). Management information systems: A contemporary perspective. New York: Macmillan.

Schuler, D. (1994). Community networks: Building a new participatory medium. Communications of the ACM, 37(1), 39-51.

Schuler, D., Namioka, A. (Eds.). (1993). Participatory design: Principles and practices. Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.


About mielniczuk

Community, systems, design, collaboration, change, evidence, Intelligent Accountability(c)
This entry was posted in Healthy Systems, OHPRS, OPC, Organizer's Notebook, Participatory Design. Bookmark the permalink.

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