Establishing an internet-based information exchange system for the KwaZulu-Natal Midlands Rural Development Network (MIDNET), South Africa.
The purpose underpinning the study was to establish the prospect of developing a supplementary Internet-based information exchange system for the Natal Midlands Rural Development Network (MIDNET) and to propose a model of operation for the anticipated system. The study intended to propose, based on findings, steps and strategies that need to be taken on how best to integrate an Internet based information exchange system into the requirements and capacity of MIDNET members. To accomplish the objectives of the study, both primary and secondary sources of data were used. Literature on cooperation and networking and application of the Internet for information exchange networking were reviewed, analyzed and conceptualized to establish feasibility dimensions for an Internet-based information exchange system in a network environment and to plan a model of operation for the system. Original research was carried out using a self-administered questionnaire to MIDNET members during July through November 2001. Out ofthe questionnaires distributed to all 32 members, 18 (56.8%) were returned and used. Data collected was related to current information exchange activities; general information needs; availability of information resources in terms of ICTs infrastructure, organization and human resources and funding; and opinions on establishing an Internet based information exchange system. Supplementary information was also collected through observation of some aspects of the information exchange and dissemination activities of MIDNET members. Document analysis was done mainly to establish the contents ofthe information products of MIDNET members, MIDNET and interest groups of MIDNET. Based on general information needs established in the present study, MIDNET members were found to have similar objectives, activities and disciplines of work geared toward similar goals within rural development, the thematic boundary of the network. MIDNET was found to draw in, within its membership, geographical and thematic boundary, like-minded organizations and individuals that have similar information seeking behavior. Members, when motivated by five reasons, were found to exchange information using nine kinds ofcommunication media and mechanisms and 16 categories ofinformation products and activities which reflected 27 information content categories. The information products of members, MIDNET and interest groups of MIDNET were largely in the category of grey literature. Most members were found to have a good state oflCTs infrastructure in terms of owning computers, computer networks, Internet connectivity and development of Internet-based information exchange and dissemination systems. Most members do not have information support services backed by conventional information units and professionals. Ad hoc arrangements of responsibility for information work were used in most instances. Findings concerning funding infonnation exchange activities were inadequate to examine the trend in funding. Findings concerning problems and factors that impeded current information exchange activities and solutions suggested by members reflected the need to improve current communication and information delivery interfaces and to establish an Internet-based information system as a supplementary interface. Members indicated an overwhelming desire to participate in and contribute to the anticipated system, although there was a reluctance in terms of system inputs other than information. Analysis of the study findings in terms of fundamental feasibility dimensions showed that the Internet, if appropriately and effectively used, has the prospect to facilitate communication and information exchange in MIDNET by way of replicating current interfaces. The study proposes a model plan for the establishment of an Internet-based information exchange system that would suit the requirements and capacity of members. The plan is proposed based on findings of the present study and valid reflections from a review of the literature in terms of prerequisites for networking, basic requirements and general principles. Other aspects considered were models of cooperation on the Internet and methodological approaches for the development and impact assessment ofan Internet-based information exchange system in the development sector.
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