Global Impact Study

The Global Impact Study of Public Access to Information & Communication Technologies was a five-year project (2007-2012) to generate evidence about the scale, character, and impacts of public access to information and communication technologies. Looking at libraries, telecenters, and cybercafes, the study investigated impact in a number of areas, including communication and leisure, culture and language, education, employment and income, governance, and health.

Implemented by the University of Washington’s Technology & Social Change Group (TASCHA), the Global Impact Study was part of Investigating the Social & Economic Impact of Public Access to Information & Communication Technologies — a broader CAD$7.9 million research project supported by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC) and a grant to IDRC from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Managed by IDRC, this project includes the Global Impact Study of Public Access to Information & Communication Technologies (this project) and The Amy Mahan Research Fellowship Program, led by Universitat Pompeu Fabra, which aimed to deepen the capacity of emerging scholars with the goal of increasing the quality and quantity of research on public access to ICT produced in developing countries.

Tapping research networks

Project researchers came from existing and new research networks, as well as from teams convened at both the global and regional/country level where field research was carried out. Part of the mandate of this project was to connect people and build a community of researchers working around these issues.

Improved capacity, better research methods, and a common framework

Throughout the study’s five-year span, we built research capacity in developing and emerging economies. We also sought to advance methodological approaches for investigating the impact of ICT.

Better programs & policies

The Global Impact Study is important because it generated evidence to support policy and investment decisions and provide insights into how to develop better initiatives.


  • Background

Over the last decade, governments, international development agencies, foundations, and corporations have made significant investments to increase public access to ICT, particularly in developing countries. As these investments continue to grow, questions are being raised about their impact, particularly:

  • What are the social, economic, and political impacts of public access to ICT?
  • What is the magnitude of these impacts and how can we measure them?
  • What is the relationship between costs and benefits of providing and using public access to ICT?

We investigated these questions using a range of survey, ethnographic, and experimental research approaches. Researchers examined the impact of shared, public access models, such as the provision of ICT in libraries and telecentres, as well as other models and innovations that emerge over the life of the project (2007–2012). The study examined both positive and negative impacts on the well-being of populations in the developing world.

Project Design

  • Questions
  • Activities

To operationalize the research problem, we developed three research questions, six broad areas of inquiry (impact factors), and six development domains, outlined below. These guided our research activities, which included national-level inventories, venue and population surveys, and in-depth studies.


The Global Impact study examined three questions related to public access to information and communication technologies:

  • What are the social, economic, and political impacts of public access to information and communication technologies?
  • What is the magnitude of these impacts and how can we measure them?
  • What is the relationship between the costs and benefits of providing and using public access to information and communication technologies?

    Our general hypothesis is that there is a relationship between these six factors and the impact of public access technologies, either directly through use of public access facilities or because they influence the way public access ICTs are used.

  • Reach — What is the reach of public access venues, geographically and socially? What are the mechanisms by which public access ICT services are accessed and used directly and indirectly? How does this translate into impacts? What costs are associated with these impacts?
  • Use — What different types of uses occur at public access ICT venues (e.g. individual or collective uses, instrumental or not, etc.)? What is the impact of different types of usage? How do users make decisions about when and how to use what type of public access ICT facilities? What do their usage patterns indicate about the value they place on public access ICT in particular and ICT access in general?
  • Physical Design & Location — What are the different designs of public access ICT venues? How does the physical design/architecture and location of public access ICT venues affect their accessibility, use, long-term sustainability and impacts? What factors shape the design of public access ICT venues?
  • Venue Services & Operations — How do public access ICT venues operate? What services do they offer and in what form (e.g., staff assistance, infomediary services, IT training, childcare)? What rules govern their use? How does the design of public access ICT services and operations affect their accessibility, use, long-term sustainability and impacts? What factors shape the design of public access ICT services and operations? What is the relationship between the provision of ancillary services and the use as well as the degree of impact of public access ICTs? Under what conditions is it cost effective to provide these services?
  • Information Ecologies — What is the socio-cultural context of public access ICT provision and use? What information and communication resources do users have or need, and is this factored into public access ICT design? How does this explain usage patterns and associated impacts?
  • Policy & Regulatory Context — How do policy and regulatory environments affect the provision, design, use, and impact of public access ICTs? To what extent is policymaking based on research evidence?

    Information and communication technologies can influence lives in a variety of ways. The Global Impact Study is focusing its efforts on the six domains described below. While these six areas are central to exploring the impacts of public access ICTs, the study allows for, and welcomes, discoveries beyond these domains.

  • Communication & Leisure: People often use computers in public venues for their own personal enjoyment. Development gains (or losses) from playing computer games or using social media might not be immediate, but these types of uses can support development outcomes in the long run. For example, leisurely exploring interests online may build potential skills or knowledge that lead to positive outcomes later, and using ICTs for personal communication, through email and chatting, can help people maintain or expand valuable social networks.
  • Culture & Language: Many people use ICTs to share cultural information, both traditional and popular. Some might do this by organizing or attending events. Others may create websites or blogs in local languages or benefit from reading such content. Can we say that technology in libraries, telecenters, and cybercafes has helped users maintain or express cultural identity, preserve languages, or support cultural practices or experiences in other ways?
  • Education: Through computers and Internet availability, people can gain access to information and tools that support learning. Students can use software to complete homework and improve their performance at school. Adolescents and adults might seek out admissions or financial aid information for new educational opportunities or to participate in online workshops. Such uses can support positive educational outcomes that may lead to a range development goals, from economic impacts to enhancing quality of life.
  • Employment & Income: People can use ICTs to find jobs, prepare resumes, or improve their skills and enhance their employability. Entrepreneurs can use the Internet to sell products and services or expand customer bases. Others use online information to support their lines or work, whether through pricing decisions, discovering new production techniques, or exploring new ways to earn income. Additionally, using ICTs might help people send or receive remittances. To what extent do people use public access ICTs to support such activities and what are the impacts?
  • Governance: National, regional, and local governments are increasingly creating and maintaining a web presence to share and solicit information from their constituents. Are people using public access computers to contact officials, improve their access to public services, or hold the government more accountable? Are people connecting with NGOs, political parties, or other groups to increase civic participation? Effectively using ICTs for these purposes can have a significant impact on people’s lives and the communities they live in.
  • Health: Increasingly, information about health is provided online. The Internet can provide people with better access to information about illnesses, disease prevention and treatment, medical conditions, diet and nutrition, or health care providers. To what extent have people used public access ICTs to obtain information that resulted in better health outcomes for themselves, their families, or others in their communities?
  • Our hypothesis was that the impact of public access technologies occurs along a continuum, from availability, to accessibility and affordability, to usage, outcomes, and ultimately impacts. Based on this, the Global Impact Study’s research activities used three main methods:

  • National-level inventories to engage in broad investigation
  • Surveys to narrow in on issues at an intermediate level
  • In-depth studies to zone in on targeted topics to get a better sense of how change happens

    Our research teams conducted inventories of currently operating facilities in six countries — Bangladesh, Brazil, Chile, Ghana, Lithuania, and the Philippines — from which we can infer the reach and distribution of public access venues. Quantifying venues provided a baseline against which we assessed the magnitude of the larger public access phenomenon and began to formulate statements about impact.


    Surveys were administered to representative samples of public access venues and populations (both venue users and non-users). We conducted surveys in Bangladesh, Brazil, Chile, Ghana, and the Philippines. The surveys generated data that answered questions beyond what inventories provided and served as integral links to our in-depth studies. They also told us more about the accessibility, use, and perceived benefits of public access venues.


    While inventories and surveys allowed us to answer a number of basic questions, a more precise, actionable understanding of impact requires in-depth studies that investigated targeted topics. In all, seventeen topics were identified during the first phase of the project. All of these topics are very relevant and worth exploring — however due to time and resource constraints, the Global Impact Study explored only seven topics. Other researchers are encouraged to build on the study's work and examine the remaining topics.


  • Infomediaries: Brokers of Public Access Sites — What are the roles of infomediaries, and how do infomediaries influence what users learn, do differently, and value from services? What is the effect of staff skills and training on the impact of public access venues?
  • Collaborative Knowledge Sharing at Public Access Sites — Do shared use practices emerge when users access ICTs simultaneously with others in public access venues? What are the consequences for users?
  • The Impact of Non-instrumental Use of ICTs on Users’ ICT Skills — Do non-instrumental uses of ICT (e.g., games, chat, and entertainment activities) have impacts on employability and income?
  • Mobile Phones and Public Access ICTs — How do mobile users interact with public access sites? What is the use of public access ICTs among mobile phone users? To what extent are there uses of computers in public access venues that have something to do with mobile phones?
  • Interpersonal Communication — Public access venues provide an arena for people to connect with their friends and family. How effective are public access venues in providing services for people to communicate with their friends and family, particularly with those overseas? What is the comparative impact of communication and information services use on dispersed families?
  • Cost-Benefit — What is the relationship between the costs and benefits of providing and using public access to ICT?
  • Sustainable Livelihoods — Do public access ICTs and services located in libraries have an impact of reducing vulnerability of its users by enhancing education, education, and income strategies? If so, how do these public access ICTs and services impact these factors of its users?

  • Non-users — What are the barriers to access, especially for marginalized populations? How are public access points viewed by non-users? What are the key sources of information for non-users? Are public access ICT users a source of information for non-users?
  • Willingness to Pay — How do users make choices when there are fees? How much are individuals willing to pay for different public access ICT products and services? What is the relationship between users’ perceived value of communication and information services and the actual benefits derived from them?
  • Institutional & Stakeholder Influence — At the national level, what institutional changes are shaping, or being shaped by, the development of public access to ICT? Are certain types of centers associated with certain types of state structures? At a local level, what change agents are facilitating the development of public access to ICT? What is the role of stakeholders in public access venues with high impact? What effect does community involvement in the design and operation of a public access venue have on the social and economic impacts of the venue?
  • Rules — How do restrictions on the use of computers, the Internet, and venue space affect usage in public access venues?
  • Role of Networks in the Venue Ecosystem —At the local level, what is the relationship between public access venues and government, NGOs, and other public access venues? Are there programmatic ties? Do public access venues within larger networks have more or less impact on their users and communities? Is access better in pre-existing networks or in new establishments?
  • Local Content — What is the importance of local content in public access sites for making an impact on communities? What is the geographical scale at which information must be gathered and disseminated to ensure that public access to ICTs is beneficial?
  • Venue Architecture & Design — How does the nature of physical space at public access venues, including the availability of space for ancillary activities (e.g., computer placement, meeting rooms, computer repair work, child care) affect usage?
  • IT Skills, Training & Employment — What is the value of basic IT training and services provided at public access venues? Do IT skills improve job prospects or better lives? Does public access to ICT advance users’ computer skills or their ability to seek and use information? What are the differences in ICT skills developed by people using different types of public access ICT venues?
  • Life Cycle of Public Access Venues — What are the lifecycle models of public access ICTs? Are public access venues best understood as transitionalentities? Are some failures actually transitions? What is the impact of failure on the community? When do the impacts of public access use become visible at individual and community level? What would be the impact of multiple public access venues in a community (e.g., competition)? Do public access venues started under private entrepreneurial, or government programs function differently?
  • Community Information Ecology — What are the details of the information ecology of the larger community within which public access sites are located? What forces in the community promote the use of public access ICTs? Does public access venue influence information ecology of a community and vice versa?
  • Policy & Regulation — What are the mechanisms that enable research and policy making to work together in the field of public access?