Reflections from the 3rd global forum on telecentres

The 3rd Global Forum on Telecentres was held 5-7 April, 2011 in Santiago Chile.  After having been to the first two events (WSIS Tunis in 2005 and GK3 Kuala Lumpur 2007) there was both a continuation of some topics (sustainability anyone?), and some new ones (employability, climate change, Indigenous peoples).  Unfortunately, from my perspective, the format — 10 minute presentations from a dark stage in front of 200 people — left almost no time for discussion and made everything very formal and superficial. This was unlike the previous two forums that fostered true networking and exchange of ideas in an informal, small group environment. So one had to really seek out the people doing interesting work and catch them during the short coffee breaks.

With that rant over, one of the more interesting trends I noticed was the number of people who said they were all in favor of the telecenter movement for what it represented, but who said they don’t consider their organizations as “telecenters” per se.  Libraries are the most obvious example of this. The telecenter movement likes to claim that libraries are one of them, but the library people I spoke with aren’t quite sure it’s something they want to be associated with. This issue came to a head in the final session during the vetting of the declaration . When Catalina Escobar, from an NGO in Colombia, pointed out that libraries weren’t mentioned the Foundation representative on the stage (yes, the darkened one) suggested a footnote be added saying that telecenters include libraries along with other types of public access venues, a gesture that only exacerbated the problem of tying to brand telecenters and nesting one type of venue within another. Most NGOs that offer technology access with which I am familiar also do not consider themselves as telecenters, so I think this naming issue will continue to be problem.

The session that seemed to generate the most excitement was the one on the role of telecenters in disaster management: the Chilean case after the 2010 earthquake.  The allotted 45 minutes turned into 1.5 hours, and an informal working group was formed to carry this forward. This is a topic TASCHA has been part of, and our student Beth Patin was one of the panelists.

Finally, I participated on a panel discussing impact. I prepared a slide deck but at the last moment we changed the format to a PowerPoint free discussion, a welcome relief from the rest of the conference. One of the points I conveyed is that while the practitioner community (not surprisingly) believes telecenters are largely successful and having impact, the academic community is not as kind (see TASCHA paper on this). So one of two things is happening — either telecenters are indeed not having an impact but we turn a blind eye to this, or the research is not capturing the real impact due to methodological and other challenges. As a researcher directing a large-scale study on this topic–the Global Impact of Public Access to ICTs–I’m probably more in the latter camp, but we’ll see for sure when we finish analyzing the data from this five-year study.