February 4: Do public access ICTs have an impact on socio-economic development? Findings of the Global Impact Study

TASCHA Talk: Araba Sey

This TASCHA Talk was part of the iSchool’s Research Conversation Series

February 4, 2013

Barely two decades ago, public access information and communication technologies (ICTs) were high on the global development agenda as the best approach to making computers and the internet available to people in low and middle-income countries. Shared access in telecenters, libraries, and similar venues would make ICTs more accessible and affordable. Furthermore, this could be coupled with other valuable services such as digital training, job placement resources, and delivery of government services; thereby charting a path to social and economic inclusion for disadvantaged populations. In recent years, however, this view has fallen out of favor in some government and donor communities, due to a variety of factors – lack of clear evidence of positive socio-economic impact (particularly in terms of returns to investment), the preponderance of internet cafes offering relatively low-cost access while publicly funded models struggle for sustainability, the appearance that public access venues are mostly populated by young people preoccupied with social networking and entertainment, and the apparent redundancy of computers in the wake of mobile telephony. Yet on the ground, based on patronage levels, it appears that public access venues are important to those who use them. And while some agencies are dropping public access from their portfolio of development strategies, others are ramping up their efforts to expand public access to ICTs.

Is the dismissal of public access ICTs warranted? Have public access venues outlived their usefulness, or are they (still) effective tools for social inclusion? Is their utility broad-based or limited to particular contexts and areas of endeavor? What precisely are the impacts (if any) they deliver and how? Is public access a perfect substitute for private access to computer and internet technology? Designed and implemented by the Technology & Social Change Group (TASCHA) at the iSchool, the Global Impact Study was designed to investigate  these types of questions, in the largest study of its kind.

Araba Sey, discussed insights from the Global Impact Study and outlined some dimensions of public access as a strategy for socio-economic development, addressing questions such as: who uses public access ICTs and why, what value do users perceive, what types of outcomes have users experienced and in what areas. Based on these findings we suggest how vested interests might realistically characterize the nature of public access impacts and make decisions about the role public access could play in their development agendas.

About the presenter

Araba Sey is a Research Assistant Professor at the University of Washington’s Information School. Her research focuses on the social and economic implications of information and communication technologies (ICTs) including: the dynamics of mobile phone appropriation by low income populations and telecommunication industry actors, the impacts of public access to ICTs, and other manifestations of the interaction between ICTs and socio-economic development issues in low and middle income countries.