The European Commission is in the process of reflecting the past, present and future of telecentres or, in general, public Internet access points (PIAP) or, even in a broader sense, e-Inclusion Intermediaries (eI2).
Amongst others, there are four important issues that are guiding this reflection:
- What has the impact been so far.
- How has the techno-social scenario changed since they were initially born: increasing adoption of ICTs, importance of broadband, mobile Internet, etc.
- How has the socio-economic scenario also changed, i.e. the economic and debt crisis in Europe.
- According to the preceding points, what should be done in the future and how, that is, how public policies to foster the Information Society should be designed in matters of universal access/usage.
In this framework, the Institute for Prospective Technological Studies (IPTS) organized an Expert Workshop on Measuring the Impact of eInclusion Intermediaries in Europe: towards an impact assessment practice?, that took place in May 3-4 in Seville, Spain, and to which I was invited to participate and to contribute with a position paper.
My position paper should verse on the future of telecentres in Europe in 2020, and it was supposed to be what I call a “grounded opinion”: grounded, because it is based on both personal/professional experience and lots of readings; opinion, because, all in all, I was asked to provide my own point of view, what would I do was I to design the policy that would deal with e-Inclusion Intermediaries.
Position paper: eInclusion Intermediaries in Europe: horizon 2020
State of the development of the Information Society
I believe that the development of the Information Society has come not to a dead end, but near a point of stagnation:
- The industry and governments are most of the time still thinking in terms of infrastructures: how much, how are they managed, what is the regulation to bind them and what is they state of usage (usually in percent of saturation).
- Users only care about a huge supply of content and services (for whatever the use) and that these run on affordable infrastructures.
This is, of course, a simplification. But a peek at what governments are measuring and what media are broadcasting gives us an idea of the tremendous bias towards the preceding aspects of the Information Society.
The problem with this scenario is that it has no future, as policies centred in infrastructures are targeting an almost non-existent problem:
- In general terms, physical access is becoming a minor issue (remember: Europe 2020). It already is, especially if we do not take into account as an indicator “households with Internet access”, but “people covered by access to Internet”.
- The former point is due, in part, because many last mile issues have been solved (e.g. with mobile Internet, e.g. with public Internet access points such as telecentres, libraries, cybercafes, schools and many other venues).
- The supply of content and services is buoyant.
The missing gap: capacity building
On the other hand, the two growing problems remain unaddressed by public policies:
- A stable share of ‘refuseniks’, that choose not to use the Internet for several reasons.
- A growing share of citizens that do need digital skills and literacies that they lack or have to acquire when and if possible.
These two gaps have two main consequences:
- An ICT sector which a shortage of supply in terms of highly qualified workers and human capital in general.
- A quality of usage of the Internet characterized by inefficacy and inefficiency, and that many find will be (already is) the core of a second digital divide, deeper that the digital divide of access and more difficult to fix because of its (human) nature.
State of the question, the missing gap and e-Inclusion Intermediaries
How do e-Inclusion Intermediaries face the state of the question and the missing gap? In my own (grounded) opinion, either they change or they will perform badly.
- Telecentres (understood as not-for-profit and for-development-aimed) will suffer from economic resources shortage, because of the economic crisis and because of Internet penetration. Cybercafes (understood as for-profit and comercially-aimed) will suffer from social sustainability shortage, because of the economic crisis (what solutions are you providing?) and also because of Internet penetration.
- Most e-Inclusion Intermediaries have traditionally provided or recently began to provide services related to e-skills. The problem is that those skills are becoming much more complex than simple techonological skills and, indeed, it is a set of digital literacies and capacities that is required. Are eI2 responding to that?
- In the same train of though of literacies, what we have found in our conversion from an Industrial Society to an Information Society is that we have done quite good in learning or appropriating technologies an to applying/adapting them to our usual processes. But we have definitely failed in improving most processes and socioeconomic transformation is but a good bunch of “good practices” that we all know but cannot replicate.
A forecast/proposal for e-Inclusion Intermediaries
- The telecentre should become an eCentre, a centre that is not a physical place, but a reference resource that can actually be located in a specific location, or embeded within an organization. Telecentres should be insourced in other institutions: in a firm, in a civic centre, in a library, in a government, in an NGO…
- Complementary to the former statement, many of the telecentre functions can and should be outsourced. There is evidence that the probability of survival of a telecentre is linked to it being part of a telecentre network: share knowledge, share resources, share contents and services. Outsourcing can take the shape of a core+franchises or a flat network. But reinventing the wheel should be forbidden.
- If we believe in the insourcing/outsourcing pair, partnerships come naturally: e-Inclusion Intermediaries should complement a shared project with their added value, while other partners should be left to do the same. Partnerships with governments in the field of sheer “for development” inclusion or fostering e-government; partnerships with the private sector to leverage the expertise in the field and sell it for the sake of economic sustainability; look out for firms to be included as targets of eI2.
- Of course, purity should be abandoned: no more either telecentre or cybercafe. It’s about e-Centres and it is about to provide knowledge. The function is what matters and not the means: the function is part of the mission, the means are part of the business/operating plan.
- But the function is not fostering ICTs, the function is Inclusion. The ICT centre has to become a Centre-on-ICT-steroids. It is the community — the target — what matters, it is about supporting neighbourhoods, schools, entrepreneurs, living labs… not about supporting ICTs. But we do it with ICTs because we believe in its huge potential.
Based on my own experience
Bermúdez Ferran, I., Peña-López, I., Delgado Alonso, X., Merino Alcántara, M. & Laín Escandell, B. (2011). Qualificació professional: Dinamització de l’Espai TIC
. Barcelona: Institut Català de les Qualificacions Professionals. [Follow the link for the Spanish Version. There is a draft version of this paper in English: ask me if you want it]
Bibliography on the impact of telecentres
Becker, S., Crandall, M. D., Fisher, K. E., Kinney, B., Landry, C. & Rocha, A. (2010). Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries
. Washington, D.C.: Institute of Museum and Library Services.
Becker, S., Crandall, M. D., Fisher, K. E., Blakewood, R., Kinney, B. & Russell-Sauvé, C. (2011). Opportunity for All: How Library Policies and Practices Impact Public Internet Access
. Washington, D.C.: Institute of Museum and Library Services.
Bertot, J. C., Jaeger, P. T., McClure, C. R., Wright, C. B. & Jensen, E. (2009). “Public libraries and the Internet 2008-2009: Issues, implications, and challenges
First Monday, 2 November 2009, 14
(11). [online]: First Monday.
In early 2010, the US National Telecommunications and Information Administration issued Digital Nation: 21st Century America’s Progress Towards Universal Broadband Internet Access which, amongst other things, provided data on why people did not use the Internet. Two years later, the Pew Internet & American Life Project provides similar data in Digital Differences. It is very interesting comparing how the reasons for not using the Internet have evolved.
Before entering the analysis, please note that the NTIA actually provided the reasons for not using broadband at home, while PIP measures the reasons for not using the Internet in general. As the difference between broadband and dial-up at that time (October 2009) was circa 5%, and now (August 2011) being 3%, we believe that comparisons, though inaccurate, do indeed provide good enough insights for a quick analysis.
The first chart shows the reasons that non-users state for not using the Internet, measured in percent of non-users. Thus, the chart pictures the share or weight that each reason has in relationship with other reasons for not using the Internet:
Bearing in mind the caveat on the slightly different variables measured by the indicators, we can easily see that the barriers to access (usually lack of infrastructure, affordability and personal disabilities or lack of appropriate/adapted infrastructure) have decreased drastically in less than two years (Oct 2009 to Aug 2011). Yes, there still is an important 30% of non-users that state that the reason for not using the Internet is infrastructures, but the reason has decreased. More competitive markets, the deployment of infrastructures in remote areas and public access points sure are the main causes for this decrease.
On the contrary, lack of skills has sky-rocketed and multiplied its weight by 13%. It is possible that this figure is not actually true, and that the 3% in 2009 is not gathering non-users because of capability reasons (this is most likely — more on that later).
The interesting thing to notice, though, are the steady “Lack of interest” and “Other” reasons, which almost add up to 50% of the people that do not use the Internet. Besides their high share, it is worth stressing their steadiness or even slight increase. There is a constant share of refuseniks that will not use the Internet whatever the government, the market or their peers do to convince them to do otherwise.
The second chart shows again the reasons that non-users state for not using the Internet, but this time measured in percent of the total of the population. Thus, the chart pictures the share or weight that each reason has in relationship with the whole, then giving us an idea of the aggregate number of people that state a specific reason for not using the Internet:
The good thing to note here is that most reasons are decreasing. This is just natural as the overall adoption of the Internet is increasing. So, by construction, one would expect just that.
The not so good thing to note is that the amount of people stating they are not skilled enough to use the Internet does increase. Even if this figure can be (or is) distorted by the different things that data are depicting, it is consistent with other data and observations around, namely (1) the increase of a second-level digital divide caused by different levels of digital skills and (2) the increase of the amount of people that access public access points (telecentres, libraries, cybercafes) not because of the infrastructures — which most have at home — but in seek of advice or help.
Before this scenario, which is not new, a change or shift of public policies to foster the Information Society should take place. Not that policies aimed at more, better and cheaper infrastructures should be abandoned (or yes, that is another debate), but the provision of digital competences to the citizens should be having an increased if not a major role in public policies.
And, of course, it is about much more than putting computers in the classroom.
Zickuhr, K. & Smith, A. (2012). Digital differences
. Washington, D.C.: Pew Internet & American Life Project.
On April 12th, 2011, I was in Belgrade take part in the Quality standards in ICT education workshop, belonging to the Click to Europe, aimed at
promoting and contributing to e-inclusion of people, businesses and communities in Serbia, thus improving quality of life, employability and social inclusion of citizens.
Knowing myself very little about quality standards, I was asked to provide the participants — mainly telecentre administrators and other related profiles — with a general framework where they could situate their own e-inclusion projects and, most especially, what was the importance and role of ICT skills in the whole scenario.
Keeping that in mind, and for something more than three hours, I began explaining what the digital revolution was about, that is, what was the outer framework, and went on zeroing in until I ended up talking about digital competence, e-portfolios and personal learning environments. The underlying idea — which almost became a mantra — was that it was not about e-inclusion, but about inclusion, inclusion in an always changing world that required the most valuable skill: being able to learn, to take control of one’s own learning process. And digital skills were there to help people in that.
The speech, Citizens in a Knowledge Society: rethinking education from scratch was structured as follows:
- In The digital revolution: citizenship and inclusion in a post-industrial society I explained how digitization implied the shift from an industrial to an informational, knowledge-based, network society, and how in such a society institutions (and intermediators in general) have seen their roles and sheer nature radically transformed.
- Policies for (e-)inclusion: from physical access to meaningful use depicted a comprehensive model of the digital economy and how each and every category of digital development was strongly related with other ones or with some indicators we generally use to measure development.
- In Netizens: towards a set of digital competences I tried to exemplify how ICTs have become general purpose technologies and are now embedded in the core of our daily lives. Thus, e-inclusion is definitely about inclusion in a very much broader sense.
- Lastly, New assessment frameworks for new skills provided a comprehensive definition of digital skills which I related, again, with daily experiences and, most especially, with the new ways of learning that Information and Communication Technologies have enabled.
The workshop provided me with two positive feelings.
The first one is that I got the sensation that there was an overall coherence and consistence in the work that I have been pursuing in the last years (I revisited and reused material of my own from, at least, the last four years). Thus, realizing that somehow you’ve been adding up or building around a core idea (and not just producing splattered thoughts) is pleasantly comforting.
The second one is that, at least, most of the theory I handle (of my own and, most of it, by third parties) seems to be having strong strings attached to reality and being ready to provide advice for policy making and project designing. The more feedback I get from people from the terrain, the more I think we’re going parallel (or converging) paths, which, again, is absolutely a good thing to be aware of.
Please see below the slides that I used.
There still are voices that claim for the usefulness of fostering ICTs, specially amongst those who consciously refuse to use the Internet or refuseniks. Most of the arguments can be grouped in two categories:
If they don’t use the Internet, who am I to tell them to: they know better!
They’ve been living for ages without the Internet and they surely can carry on living without e-mail or Facebook.
Both arguments can, at their turn, be embedded in a major trend now stating that ICTs have neither (positive) impact nor will solve any human problem (economic or not).
After a first era of e-enlightenment were the magic wand of ICTs would eradicate hunger all over the place, now ICTs have become almost useless and, according to some, the drivers of all sorts of evils.
Though pendulums finally reach their points of balance, the problem is that, while swinging, many arguments are centrifuged out impoverishing the debate. I would like to point out why I believe ICTs need being fostered and, more specifically, why we should encourage people to adopt them and use them intensively. At the end, some shades of meaning — and shadows of doubt — will be provided too.
Aggregate economic positive impact.
At the aggregate level — that is, I have to apples, you’ve got none, we’ve got one apple each in average — ICTs have already proven to have a positive impact on the Economy. There is plenty of literature about the economic benefits of ICTs: growth, efficiency, efficacy, productivity, direct impact on employment…
Is economic growth a synonym of development? Certainly not. Will a positive impact on the Economy reduce poverty? Maybe. I believe the Economy to be a means, not a goal. Thus, economic growth (or productivity or efficiency) will just tell us that we’ve got more tools to potentially achieve higher levels of what’s (to me) really the goal: more health, more education and more democracy.
An example? FrontlineSMS:Medic is saving lots of money (and time) by using mobile telephony in the healthcare system. And yes, cost is an important part in the equations of economic productivity and efficiency.
Aggregate and disaggregate non-economic positive impact.
Oh, but not all is about money.
Agreed: Fundación EHAS are contributing to save lives by dramatically reducing the time of reaction to a medical emergency by using wireless technologies between healthcare centres. My own University is providing online education to circa 50,000 students, many of them just able to get their diplomas because they can study from their own homes (or workspaces, or wherever they may roam).
Many people can, for the first time, follow online the plenary sessions of their city councils or their Parliaments, sometimes even being able to have their say and even decide in e.g. participatory budgeting initiatives.
Disaggregate levelling impact.
Of course, the disaggregate level is much harder than the aggregate one. As Matti Tedre put it, the fact that plumbers now attend their customers on their mobile phones won’t rocket the demand up: the demand will remain stable and the mobile phone a cost to kill competition.
Though I mostly agree with this point of view (i.e. ICTs are no magic wands), at least Three comments can be made:
The first one is that, for many knowledge economy jobs, ICTs allow for a leapfrogging strategy, where a minimum investment in capital (technology… we’re taking human capital for granted here) can have high potential returns of this investment.
The second one is that while it may be true that demand can remain stable, diminishing costs of transaction can also and actually trigger some dormant demand. Revisiting the example of online learning, I wouldn’t enrol in a University whose courses I cannot physically attend, but I may consider enrolling in an online one where presence is not due.
The third one is that, even if considering a perfect zero-sum game, where no-one can win without worsening someone else’s condition, the fact that the barriers of entering the knowledge market are much lower than e.g. entering the steel market, make worth considering fostering ICTs an option. I’m here suggesting that fostering ICTs may be good as to level the economic ground we’re all competing in.
Micro level negative impact of non-access.
The last statement is closely related to what is to be stated here: most of the times it is not about the benefits of ICTs, but about the negative impact of no ICTs.
I am convinced that ICTs can make a change, and increasingly convinced that many things have to change for ICTs to make this change. As catalysts, as multipliers, they need an initial effect which to boost or accelerate.
But even to keep the statu quo will need a major adoption of ICTs: if education won’t provide a job, but the lack of education will decrease your chances to get one, ICTs may not improve your well-being, but the lack of physical access to ICTs, lower digital skills or the difficulty to retrieve and produce digital information will certainly increase your risks of being excluded (and not only e-excluded). Like it or not, ICTs have become mandatory even if for staying in the very same spot.
So, in an ideal world, higher efficiency and higher productivity and higher everything would free resources so that more rewarding tasks can be performed. The Agricultural Revolution enabled the creation of civilizations and the Industrial Revolution made possible education and health for all. In an ideal world, the Digital Revolution should be able to provide more for more.
In a real world, promoting the adoption of ICTs is, at least, a way to stay where you are and not seeing your position getting worse. Not surprisingly, the only ones I heard or read talking about the needlessness of ICT adoption were the ones whose odds to get worse were already small if anything.
Notes from the I International Workshop on Research in ICT for Human Development, at the Universidad Rey Juan Carlos, and held in Fuenlabrada, Spain, on May 13th and 14th, 2010. More notes on this event: ict4hd10.
Ismael Peña-López: The role of governments in promoting the Information Society for reducing the Digital Divide
I International Workshop on Research in ICT for Human Development (2010)
Bengt Feil — thank you very much! — interviewed me for the Pan European eParticipation Network (PEP-NET) to sum up in three minutes my speech Goverati: e-Aristocrats or the delusion of e-Democracy that I gave at the eDem10 Conference.
The main points I make on the interview are:
- During the 250 years of our industrial society, capital owners (capitalists) have been the ones that have ruled the world, the ones that are in power.
- Our democratic system is shaped according to this industrial society and its power relationships.
- In the upcoming knowledge society, the ones that will be able to manage cleverly knowledge by means of digital tools (digerati) are likely to have a higher share or power in all the aspects of life, especially the government (goverati).
- We need to work to make access to knowledge as widespread as possible — access to infrastructures, digital competences, effective usage — so to avoid replacing the existing plutocracy with a new e-aristocracy.