Early on in the digital divide conversation, myriad donors and governments invested in telecentres — public spaces where people could access computers and learn about the internet. Fast forward to today, where billions have personal internet in their pocket and use Facebook daily, and there is a real question — do we still need public access to information and communication technologies (ICTs) in the age of the mobile phone?
A recent IREXtech Deep Dive discussion sponsored by IREX’s Center for Collaborative Technology and co-sponsored by the University of Washington’s Technology & Social Change Group (TASCHA), brought together a group of leading public access technology experts and development practitioners to debate this question and envision various public access futures. Highlights of the discussion follow.
Half of the world’s population lacks affordable access to the internet, whether via PCs or mobiles. Deep Dive participants agreed that public access plays an important role in providing basic access, thereby fulfilling a fundamental need without which the myriad benefits of the internet cannot be realized. Efforts to reduce fixed and mobile broadband pricing will make private access more affordable to many, but poorer populations will largely be left out.
Not about the tech
At the same time, public access is no longer about access to the technology. This may have been the case many years ago, but today these places are more about providing services for people to make effective use of the technology. Operators develop programs to meet ever changing community needs and to respond to the changing tech environment, including that brought about by the explosion of mobile phones. Infomediaries — knowledgeable staff who can guide people to the resources and services they seek — play important roles. And, these places offer opportunities for knowledge sharing among members of a community.
Research shows that even people with mobile internet are heavy users of public access to perform tasks (e.g. homework) that are better suited to the affordances of a PC and affordability of a public access venue. It’s more accurate to think of people having “digital repertoires” that involve uses of different devices and places to fulfill various computing and online needs. The ICTD community needs to get beyond device-centric thinking.
The value of physical space
Extensive discussion centered around whether there was a continued need for physical spaces to use technology. Some participants believed virtual (via mobiles or home) access to be sufficient, but the majority felt that the physical component offers benefits that cannot otherwise be easily duplicated. The rise of the iHub model was mentioned as indicative of this need. Physical spaces allow people to gather to work together (coworking), take online courses such as MOOCs, engage in community activities, etc. Many youth, for example, come to telecentres or public libraries as a place to study, often in groups. As summed up in one remark, technology and information may change over time, but the benefit of face-to-face communication will remain constant.
The value of “public”
One theme that generated a lot of discussion focused on whether it’s the “public” that might actually be the more important value to nurture and protect than the “access.” The notion is that the internet is at risk of becoming an uneven platform that threatens people’s ability to be equal producers and creators of content and digital artifacts. Who gets to create, who gets paid, who gets to experience a participatory web — all the features many of us take for granted — all face efforts by the mobile and online players who want to control and/or capture people’s online behaviors. Facebook Zero-Rating and Google Free Zone, for instance, can be viewed as laudable efforts to provide affordable access, but the danger is that such initiatives give users a distorted view of the internet (e.g. Facebook = Internet), and privileges consumption over creation. Given the inevitable expansion of such initiatives, public libraries and telecentres can serve as places that offer people the skills, freedoms, and opportunities to make and create in a world where the next generation of internet users will otherwise only come to know the web as Facebook or an app store.
Finally, participants broke into groups to discuss ways that public access can continue to offer value to their communities. With “access” not the driving rationale, what roles should these places play?
The iHub model, as representative of the explosion of tech hubs across the developing world, thrives because it combines physical space, programs and services, and community. Public access centers can embrace features of this model, offering coworking space, programs to help entrepreneurs, and other services that would spread tech-hub like features to vastly more places than will soon be touched by the commercial hubs.
People should be makers and creators of digital artifacts, not just consumers of content and goods. Many countries and communities have recognized the importance of educating people to be producers, a movement that has spurred large scale initiatives aimed at introducing coding and making in both formal and informal education. Making gives people agency and power. Many public libraries, mostly in the West, have introduced makerspaces. Mozilla and others have promoted maker parties and other initiatives that teach people how to understand and create the web. Public access centers are ideally positioned to support this movement building on their physical and human infrastructure.
Existing community infrastructure
Finally, there’s the inherent value of a community space that is welcoming to all. The community space, already a feature of most public access centers, places its emphasis on the people, not the technology. Community spaces offer access to knowledgeable staff and other community members, can address multiple needs (health, e-government, etc.), and evolve with their communities and changes to technology. As such, they offer a broad-based platform for multiple objectives and development programs. Thinking of these centers as community spaces represents a holistic approach to technology, embedding it within a broader context that also recognizes that technology use need not solely be for narrowly defined developmental purposes.
The group also commented briefly on some challenges that lie ahead. Foremost is the perception — accepted by many development organizations — that mobile phones have obviated the need for other forms of access. Combined with a number of high profile public access failures, and the allure of novel technical approaches, the appetite for public access in some circles has waned.
Funding is (obviously) a challenge, though recently there have been more efforts aimed at leveraging existing infrastructure (e.g. public libraries, shared facilities, religious centers). This has the extra advantage of providing access where people already congregate. The value of preserving a “public” internet mentioned above could also bring in national and international support.
Mindset and continuous evolution is also a challenge. While many centers have successfully evolved to meet community needs and offer an array of innovative services that go well beyond providing basic access, many others — especially those staffed by government — are not as adept and lack the motivation and know-how to do so.
Finally, there is the geographic dimension. Should we concentrate efforts in rural communities and small villages where other options are limited, or in larger cities where many people are migrating in search of better opportunities?
In the final analysis, the group resoundingly rejected the notion that mobiles have killed the telecentre. At the same time, this model must continue to innovate to stay relevant to the diverse communities they serve in an ever changing tech environment.
Connecting people for development: Why public access ICTs matter — This is the study from the Technology & Social Change Group that served as an inspiration for this event.
Resources document — A list of articles, news items, blog posts, and organizations put together for the event.