eInclusion Intermediaries in Europe: horizon 2020

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:

  1. What has the impact been so far.
  2. How has the techno-social scenario changed since they were initially born: increasing adoption of ICTs, importance of broadband, mobile Internet, etc.
  3. How has the socio-economic scenario also changed, i.e. the economic and debt crisis in Europe.
  4. 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.

  1. 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.
  2. 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?
  3. 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.

Some bibliography

Based on my own experience

Batchelor, S. J. & Peña-López, I. (2010). telecentre.org External Program Review. Ottawa: IDRC.
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., Langa, L. A. & McClure, C. R. (2006). “Public access computing and Internet access in public libraries: The role of public libraries in e–government and emergency situations”. In
First Monday, September 2006, 11 (9). [online]: First Monday.
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”. In
First Monday, 2 November 2009, 14 (11). [online]: First Monday.
Best, M. L. & Kumar, R. (2009). “Sustainability Failures of Rural Telecenters: Challenges from the Sustainable Access in Rural India (SARI) Project”. In
Information Technologies and International Development, 4 (4), 31–45. Cambridge: MIT Press.
Best, M. L. (2010). Connecting In Real Space: How People Share Knowledge and Technologies in Cybercafés. Presented at the 19th AMIC Annual Conference, Singapore. Singapore: AMIC.
Celedón, A., Pequeño, A., Garrido, M. & Patin, B. (2012). El Rol de los Telecentros y las Bibliotecas en Situación de Catástrofe: El Caso Chileno. Seattle: Technology & Social Change Group, University of Washington Information School.
Clark, M. & Gómez, R. (2011). “The negligible role of fees as a barrier to public access computing in developing countries”. In
The Electronic Journal of Information Systems in Developing Countries, 46 (1), 1-14. Kowloon Tong: EJISDC.
Fillip, B. & Foote, D. (2007). Making the Connection: Scaling Telecenters for Development. Washington, DC: AED.
Gómez, R., Ambikar, R. & Coward, C. (2009). “Libraries, telecentres and cybercafes. An international study of public access information venues”. In
Performance Measurement and Metrics, 10 (1), 33-48. Bradford: Emerald.
Gómez, R. (2009). Measuring Global Public Access to ICT. CIS Working Paper No. 7. Seattle: University of Washington.
Gómez, R. & Gould, E. (2010). “The “cool factor” of public access to ICT: Users’ perceptions of trust in libraries, telecentres and cybercafés in developing countries”. In
Information Technology & People, 23 (3), 247-264. Bradford: Emerald.
Gómez, R. & Baron-Porras, L. F. (2011). “Does Public Access Computing Really Contribute to Community Development? Lessons from Libraries, Telecenters and Cybercafés in Colombia”. In
The Electronic Journal of Information Systems in Developing Countries, 49 (2), 1-11. Kowloon Tong: EJISDC.
Gómez, R., Pather, S. & Dosono, B. (2012). “Public Access Computing in South Africa: Old Lessons and New Challenges”. In
The Electronic Journal of Information Systems in Developing Countries, 52 (1). Kowloon Tong: EJISDC.
Heeks, R. (2005). Reframing the Role of Telecentres in Development. DIG eDevelopment Briefings, No.2/2005. Manchester: Institute for Development Policy and Management.
Heeks, R. & Molla, A. (2009). Compendium on Impact Assessment of ICT-for-Development Projects. Development Informatics Working Paper Series, No.36/2009. Manchester: Institute for Development Policy and Management.
Heeks, R. & León Kanashiro, L. (2009). Remoteness, Exclusion and Telecentres in Mountain Regions: Analysing ICT-Based “Information Chains” in Pazos, Peru. Development Informatics Working Paper Series, No.38/2009. Manchester: Institute for Development Policy and Management.
Liyanage, H. (2009a). Sustainability First. In search of telecentre sustainability. Kotte: Sarvodaya Fusion, telecentre.org.
Liyanage, H. (2009b). Theory of change. Impact assessment. Colombo: Sarvodaya – Fusion,.
Masiero, S. (2011). “Financial vs. social sustainability of telecentres: mutual exclusion or mutual reinforcement?”. In
The Electronic Journal of Information Systems in Developing Countries, 45 (3), 1-23. Kowloon Tong: EJISDC.
Maya-Jariego, I., Cruz, P., Molina, J. L., Patraca, B. & Tschudin, A. (2010). ICT for Integration, Social Inclusion and Economic Participation of Immigrants and Ethnic Minorities – Case Studies from Spain. Seville: IPTS.
Mayanja, M., Acevedo, M., Caicedo, S. & Buré, C. (2009). A Guidebook for Managing Telecentre Networks: Engineering a New Phase of the Telecentre Movement. Ottawa: IDRC.
Morales García, A., Caridad Sebastián, M. & García López, F. (2009). “Los telecentros españoles: recursos, servicios y propuesta de indicadores para su evaluación”. In
Information Research, 14 (4). Sheffield: Tom D. Wilson.
Prado, P., Câmara, M. A. & Figueiredo, M. A. (2011). “Evaluating ICT adoption in rural Brazil: a quantitative analysis of telecenters as agents of social change”. In
The Journal of Community Informatics, 7 (1&2). Vancouver: Journal of Community Informatics.
Rangaswamy, N. (2008). “Telecenters and Internet Cafés: The Case of ICTs in Small Businesses”. In
Asian Journal of Communication, 18 (4), 365-378. London: Routledge.
Sciadas, G., Lyons, H., Rothschild, C. & Sey, A. (2012). Public access to ICTs: Sculpting the profile of users. Seattle: Technology & Social Change Group, University of Washington Information School.
Sey, A. & Fellows, M. (2009). Literature Review on the Impact of Public Access to Information and Communication Technologies. CIS Working Paper No. 6. Seattle: University of Washington.
Sey, A. & Fellows, M. (2011). Loose Strands: Searching for Evidence of Public Access ICT on Development. Paper presented at the iConference 2011, February 8-11, 2011. Seattle: University of Washington.
Sornamohan, V. (2012). “Telecentre Matters: Getting the Basics Right”. In
Information Technology in Developing Countries, February 2012, 22 (1). Ahmedabad: Centre for Electronic Governance.
Strover, S., Chapman, G. & Waters, J. (2003). Beyond Community Networking and CTCs: Access, Development and Public Policy. Presented at the Telecommunications Policy and Research Conference. Washington, DC

The needed shift in policies to foster the Information Society: skills and refuseniks

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:

Graphic: Reasons for not using the Internet (% of non-users)

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:

Graphic: Reasons for not using the Internet (% of all population)

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.

Bibliography

Celedón, A., Pequeño, A., Garrido, M. & Patin, B. (2012). El Rol de los Telecentros y las Bibliotecas en Situación de Catástrofe: El Caso Chileno. Seattle: Technology & Social Change Group, University of Washington Information School.
DiMaggio, P., Hargittai, E., Celeste, C. & Shafer, S. (2004). “From Unequal Access to Differentiated Use: A Literature Review and Agenda for Research on Digital Inequality”. In Neckerman, K. (Ed.), Social Inequality, 355-400. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Hargittai, E. (2002). “Second-Level Digital Divide: Differences in People’s Online Skills”. In First Monday, April 2002, 7 (4)
Min, S. (2010). “From the Digital Divide to the Democratic Divide: Internet Skills, Political Interest, and the Second-Level Digital Divide in Political Internet Use”. In Journal of Information Technology & Politics, 7 (1), 22-35. London: Routledge.
National Telecommunications and Information Administration (2010). Digital Nation: 21st Century America’s Progress Towards Universal Broadband Internet Access. Washington, DC: National Telecommunications and Information Administration.
Peña-López, I. (2010). “Policy-making for digital development: the role of the government”. In Proceedings of ICTD 2010. 4th ACM/IEEE International Conference on Information and Communication Technologies and Development. London: IEEE.
Sciadas, G., Lyons, H., Rothschild, C. & Sey, A. (2012). Public access to ICTs: Sculpting the profile of users. Seattle: Technology & Social Change Group, University of Washington Information School.
Zickuhr, K. & Smith, A. (2012). Digital differences. Washington, D.C.: Pew Internet & American Life Project.

The two divides in digital access: income and refuseniks

Two years ago, in the US (which can probably be extrapolated in most higher income countries) the reasons for not subscribing to the Internet where many, but an important one was refusal to, that is, people that just did not want to connect to the Internet.

Three years later we do not speak anymore of Internet access, but of broadband access, as we believe that what increasingly matters is the broadband divide rather a “simple” access to the Internet divide.

And the composition of the digital divide related to access has slightly changed:

 

  • 44.6% do not have broadband access because of cost (we can assume that not having a computer or an inadequate one is also because of its cost)
  • 37.8% state they do not need or are not interested in the Internet

It looks like skills are becoming less important and that economic reasons become more important. Though slightly decreasing, it is still astonishing that, of those who do not have broadband access, more than a third do not find any utility in going online.

There is something really wrong in here. On the one hand, as the crisis strikes with more virulence, more people is left behind in our Information Society because of lack of access. On the other hand, we are definitely failing in raising awareness that the Information Society is a train that you’ll either take or it’ll run over you: no “leave it pass besides you” option.

ICTs won’t necessarily bring better health, higher quality education, a more transparent and participative democracy, more wealth and jobs for all. But lack of ICTs will most likely decrease the probability to access health services, education, democracy, economic development and jobs at all. The more time I devote to studying the Information Society the lest optimistic I am that ICTs will change the main structures of the world, but I also am the more pessimistic that lack of them will end up with entire societies and ways of living.

When chances are uncertainty of improvement or almost certainty of perishing, we should definitely:

  • Enable physical access for those that are not online, maybe through public access points embedded in their communities
  • Raise awareness on the impact of ICTs in our society, so that those who could be online but just don’t want are (sorry to be patronizing here) better informed to take their decisions.

More information

National Telecommunications and Information Administration (2010). Digital Nation: 21st Century America’s Progress Towards Universal Broadband Internet Access. Washington, DC: National Telecommunications and Information Administration.

About Me

    I am Ismael Peña-López.

    I am professor at the School of Law and Political Science of the Open University of Catalonia, and researcher at the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute and the eLearn Center of that university. I am also the director of the Open Innovation project at Fundació Jaume Bofill.