Work – the community side

Although it doesn’t always look like it, I have a long professional relationship with Ile Sans Fil. Here are the results of an intervention I conducted with the people who use their hotspots. Thank you to everyone who participated in the research project.

I. Executive Summary

Interviews with Ile Sans Fil users and analyses of their everyday practices reveals that most users are still ISF’s systems are relatively easy to use, but still require interpretation for most users. Users see different advantages to ISF services, but primarily the fact that they are free and available in locations that are convenient. Many reported that they changed their everyday behavior to use wireless, and saw public wireless as a very important service. Surprisingly, many used ISF signals in places other than where they were provided, as long as the location was convenient to them. Even though they didn’t necessarily believe in the power of ISF to create virtual communities in hyper-local spaces, they all felt that they were connected with the ISF project. They wanted to know more about the group and its mandate

II. Background
ISF recently announced its 10,000th user. This means at least five thousand people have at least tried to log into the server and use the internet in a public place. But what were they doing? And were they even aware that the hard work of 40 volunteers had gone into providing the service they used? Did they, like some ISF members, want to get in touch with other people who used the same spaces? Since ISF users had recently responded to a survey, I decided to take a direct approach and meet users in person to view their practices and discuss their opinions on their understanding of community wireless service. I thank several active members of ISF for their suggestions on questions to pose to users.

III. Key Questions
What do ISF users do with the services provided?
Are they aware of the community aspect of the service?
How do they describe their relationship to the community?
What would they like to see improved or changed?

IV. Methodology
I used a posting on the ISF portal page to solicit participation from users. I received 15 responses and conducted 9 interviews. The number of responses I received suggests that users are very interested in contributing to or “giving back” to the organization that provides them with internet access. This suggests that in future other innovative research methods might use the portal page to allow users to comment on quality of service or other issues.
I asked users to show me how they accessed the service to understand the usability of ISF’s login procedure, as well as how different types of devices were used. I was also interested in what kinds of activites ISF services support.

I conducted a short interview with each user to get a sense of how they had discovered ISF as well as their feelings on the group and on their potential uses of “social software” provided by ISF.

V. Results

1. Who are the users?
a. Mobile professionals, students and professors
Journalists, screenwriters,and other creative professionals without fixed offices use ISF. They say, “my house gets claustrophobic”; “I come here because I can use my computer and smoke.” Their lifestyle and salary mean they have mobile devices and choose to work away from home.
b. Community workers
Other kinds of freelancers also use ISF. One user commented that he appreciated the portal page because it provided people coming to meet him with a visual indicator of where he was located.
c. Travellers
Several people who responded to the call for interviews were passing through Montreal, commuting from other locations, or had been located in Montreal for a short period of time.

2. Convenience and community – are they opposed?
a. Usability
One quarter of the people interviewed said that they had difficultly creating an account, one indicated that it was easier to create an account from home and another found it difficult to remember a password. The key to successfully using the service seemed to be having a close contact (friend or colleague) introduce them to the procedure for logging in.
b. Price and Quality of service
Most users are interested in the fact that ISF service is free: they say, “I would never pay for internet access in Montreal; I will pay for it elsewhere”, “I use it because it is there and it is free; aren’t most users opportunists?”

Some are very concerned about quality of service. One user described how he used the list of logged-in members to estimate the bandwidth use in a location. He would avoid locations with many people logged on, believing that speeds would be slower. A surprising use of the list of users!

c. Ubiquitous or municipal wireless
Many users seemed to perceive ISF services as a precursor to ubiquitous municipal wireless. Many were looking primarily for a wireless connection, not necessarily for a way to socialize with other people in the same space.