The Global Impact Study has wrapped up its first phase, which consisted of a year of exploratory fieldwork in three pilot countries — Bangladesh, Chile, and Lithuania.
Country Research Teams collected data on several public access venues, looking at user groups and activities, venue characteristics, and the roles venues play in each community. This data provides a snapshot of regional information ecologies — community networks of trusted information sources. It will be used to refine the Global Impact Study’s research design, and will be helpful in formulating research questions and hypotheses.
Each of the three Country Research Teams conducted individual interviews, group interviews, and non-participant observation at six to nine public access venues — including public libraries, cybercafes, and telecenters in rural and urban locations. What follows here are a few highlights.
Inconsistent usage trends
Usage trends for venues providing public access to ICT are not consistent across countries. In recent years, Bangladesh saw a growing number of users, most prominently among telecenters, while Lithuania experienced declines, due in part to rising home computers purchases. Staff in Lithuania, however, reported that the range of users — by age, occupation, and social status — has simultaneously grown. All three research teams, including the team in Chile, found that the user base in telecenters and libraries tends to be more diverse than in commercially-oriented cybercafes.
Public access venues often fulfill social functions
In Lithuania, where the majority of users have Internet access at home or school, supplemental access in telecenters and public libraries is often for social purposes. Older users may appreciate having a public space for communication and exchange. Children may visit public access venues to play games or work on homework together. In such instances, the benefits of public access may be measured by the benefits of public use as opposed to private use.
In Chile, researchers noted differences in users’ perceptions between the roles of community-oriented and commercially-oriented venues. Community-oriented venues are perceived to be in contact with the community, local mass media, churches, adults and youngsters associations — serving their information, communication, and leisure needs. Commercially oriented venues are perceived as a service provider that does not building bridges within the community.
In Bangladesh, free Internet services and a wider offering of activities in libraries and telecenters build bonds, strengthen values, and create awareness about social issues. Pilot findings show that low-income users make up one-half of telecenter users and one-third of library users, in contrast to one-sixth of cybercafe users.
The social function of community-oriented libraries and telecenters may be more pronounced in rural settings or in communities with clear geographic and socio-economic boundaries. Chile’s Country Research Team found that
People living in these communities have shared feeling of belonging and therefore, public access venues also are perceived as part of this community. (Users refer to the venue as “our” venue). Commercially-oriented venues located in areas without defined socio-demographic boundaries, for example “downtown of the city”, even if they are immersed in a community, declare themselves as providing a service. (Users refer to the venue as “the” venue.)
Similarly, rural residents in Lithuania using the Internet in public access venues are reportedly more likely to perceive themselves as local community members and be more active in community activities.