Global Impact Study research design: Assessing impact from four complementary angles

This is a post that I wrote in collaboration with François Bar. He did all the intellectual heavy lifting, of course, while I focused on flow, organization, and nitpicky editing stuff. The research design has since evolved a bit — see the final design on the Global Impact Study website.

Last August, Araba Sey provided an overview of the Global Impact Study’s research design. Although our basic approach remains the same, we’re learning along the way and our thinking is evolving. This post summarizes the updates in our research design, articulated around four basic components:

  1. Inventory and surveys that provide a big-picture view
  2. Focused studies of specific mechanisms through which public access impacts livelihoods
  3. An assessment of indirect and aggregated impacts, which takes the community as the unit of analysis and looks at non-users and alternative information sources
  4. A look at alternatives and complements to public access, focusing on mobile phones

Get a big-picture view — To do this, we’re combining an inventory of all of the public access venues in Bangladesh, Brazil, Chile, Lithuania, and the Philippines with representative surveys of venue operators and users. With this we will start to understand magnitude, characteristics, distribution, costs, and impacts — especially on livelihoods. And researchers around the world will finally have access to a reliable database for further investigation of the public-access phenomenon in these five countries (the public database should be available in late 2010).

Dig deeper into specific impact mechanisms — Next, we examine how public access can improve livelihoods. Using a range of methods — ethnographies, focus groups, experiments, etc. — we’re digging deeper into the specific mechanisms leading to impact through in-depth studies of particular venue features: the availability of infomediaries, patterns of shared use, rules prescribing what users can and cannot do (can you play games? chat? update your Facebook profile?). Beyond a better understanding of how change happens, these studies will help us make better policy recommendations: Is it worthwhile to provide staff who can reach out and support users? Which venue design features foster productive sharing? Should gaming be banned or encouraged?

Look at the broader community — What about people who never even walk through the door of a public access venue? How does the venue’s presence effect the community as a whole? To answer these questions we’re conducting in-depth studies on indirect and aggregated impacts. These studies focus on public access use and the community information ecology — taking the community as the unit of analysis and assessing the use of public access venues against other information resources. This way, we can understand how all community members benefit from the presence of a public access venue (whether they use it or not) and learn more about venue reach within communities.

Examine alternatives & complements — There are several alternatives to public access: free or subsidized private computers (like the One Laptop Per Child initiative), infrastructure support (such as free WiFi zones), and computer alternatives (television, radio, mobile phones). Because mobile phones have become so widespread and promising, we’ll examine their use and impact in relation to, and in comparison with, public access venues. In South Africa, we’ll explore whether mobile phones replace or complement public access, or whether the two simply co-exist. In the Philippines, we’ll look at the impact of the provision of government services through mobile phones, comparing their impact to computer-based services offered through public access venues.

Together, these four components cover a range of complementary approaches and methodologies, hypotheses about how impact occurs, national contexts, levels of analysis, and impact areas. In combination, they will provide a multi-faceted understanding of the various ways in which public access to ICTs impacts livelihoods.

Download the full description of the research design updates (excerpt from November 2009 Interim Report).

Learn more about the Global Impact Study.