Growing affordable access to Information and Communication Technologies have seriously questioned the need for telecentres in recent years (read telecentres as any kind of public access points, from libraries to cybercafes). After some times of hesitation, it does seem to be an increasing agreement that, far from becoming useless, telecentres are serving a second wave of citizen needs related to accessing ICTs. Thus, the provision of digital literacy and digital skills to fight a second level digital divide, and the provision of relevant content and services are displacing what before was the domain of (mere) physical access to technology.
It seems just natural to think that if the goals and means of the telecentre change, so should its organization.
I would like to propose here that this change of organization should be built upon three main pillars:
- Being part of and contribute to a network or series of networks.
- Establishing win-win partnerships with other agents (public and/or private).
- Building communities.
Being a network
Let’s state the fact that every telecentre is a world, as it needs to adapt itself to the community it is embedded on: culture, socioeconomic profiles, social and individual needs, etc. all determine (or should determine) what the telecentre does and what the telecentre is. Nevertheless, there are several aspects of a telecentre that do scale: creating some generic or basic content, some certain solutions that can be easily adapted, some managing stuff… There is quite some evidence that telecentres that belong to a network have a higher probability of surviving in the long run. For instance, by outsourcing (some) telecentre administration and thus diminishing some costs.
But networks are not only made of similar institutions: there may be institutions that could benefit from the telecentre’s knowledge but that will never approach their venue. Insourcing telecentres into organizations creating into them ICT centres managed by the telecentre is another way to gaining both sustainability and meaning by beig part of a network.
Mapping the new telecentre: networks
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Many institutions need to boost their services and content in a digital and online way; many telecentres, with a strong presence in a digital or online world need relevant services and content in which to embed training on digital competences and skills. It just looks natural that a partnership will be highly valuable for everyone’s purposes. Partnerships with governments in the field of e-government or ICTs and education, or partnerships with the private sector in the field of e-commerce or strategic consultancy can be good places where to begin.
More important, indeed, these partnerships can provide a mix of not-for profit or subsidised and for-profit activity, depending on the target user, the nature and goals of the partnership, etc. Telecentres should not avoid charging for some services (many already do) with the idea of providing a wide range of products, letting the user to chose what and how much — instead of the telecentre deciding for the user.
Mapping the new telecentre: partnerships
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It is common knowledge that the telecentre should adapt itself to the place where it is based. And it is also common knowledge in development studies that there is no sustainable development if it is not endogenous, that it, if it not build upon a community — or builds a community, and empowered one.
But there are several ways to do so. Networks and partnerships are a part of it. But it kind of is doing things from the outside: what telecentres would surely need — and libraries, and schools, and civic centres, and… — is being the community, that is, not helping others, but being themselves. It is not usually so: when we speak about e-inclusion we still see it with split roles: telecentres and ICTs on the one hand, the rest of the community on the other one. Working together, yes, but not merged one with another.
I believe that we should shift from the ICT Centre to the Centre-with-ICTs. Civic centres (with a normalized use of ICTs) and schools (with a normalized use of ICTs) are good examples of community based “centers-with-ICTs”. Of course, teachers would perform one role, and telecentre staff another one, but the important thing is that everyone believes that there is not such a thing as telecentre staff embedded in the school, but people working for education with the help of ICTs. Living labs (with a normalized use of ICTs) and centres or communities for social entrepreneurship (with a normalized use of ICTs) are other centers-with-ICTs, this time based on local entrepreneurs.
Mapping the new telecentre: communities
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Here is where the telecentre becomes a virtual telecentre: has the functions and roles of a traditional telecentre, operates in a network of virtual telecenters, and outsources much of its administration (to the network or to the hosting institution), thus being able to concentrate on its specific tasks and goals. But it does not any more rely or focus on physical access to technology. It’s the function, not the place, what’s in its name.
During the European Commision Expert Workshop on Measuring the Impact of eInclusion Intermediaries in Europe I was invited to present a position paper, eInclusion Intermediaries in Europe: horizon 2020. My diagnosis related to the development of the Information Society and the state of the digital divide in most developed countries was as follows:
- Last mile issues about to be solved.
- Physical access to infrastructures generally not a barrier.
- Increasing supply of content and services.
- Advanced (digital) competence required.
- Stable share of refuseniks.
Of course, it is untrue that all other problems are already solved, but they are quickly falling in the field of “operational issues” rather than “strategic policies”.
On the other hand, Telecentre.org has identified for Spark, the 4th Global Forum on Telecentres three main themes around which to spin all the reflection and debate:
These are, in my opinion, closely intertwined topics: I do not think there is sustainability without the support of the community and without innovation; and innovation can only come from the community and supported by a strong community.
So, people, innovation and sustainability, but with a chancing scenario — as depicted before — and in a new context of crisis and rampant unemployment (at least in Europe). Thus, what could the next steps of telecentres be to contribute to development, social inclusion and employment?
I believe there are two ways to transform telecentres or to push them ahead: change the things they do (and how they do them) and change the way they are.
Concerning the former, Paco Prieto provides a couple of very interesting proposals related to sustainability and people (or the community).
Related to sustainability, he advocates for a BYOD-based telecentre model: that is, a telecentre without equipment (just connectivity), where everyone is free to use their own device. Not on ly is this more sustainable (of course) but it also enhances a community use, as it gets rid of the
smell of classroom of most telecentres, becoming instead an informal place, a
big living room.
This community factor can be even more enhanced by flipping the telecentre, with the idea of avoiding the use of telecentres as lecture rooms and turn trainers into knowledge sharing facilitators.
These are two ideas I full agree with and go very much in the line of turning telecenters into ICT-empowered community centres, an idea that was at the core of the work we did when designing the Professional qualification: Promotion of ICT Facilities. The main idea is that telecentres are more community based, doubling as (or being embedded in) civic centres, schools, used by local entrepreneurs as living labs, etc.
But we sure can go one step beyond.
The virtual telecentre
We tend to think in telecentres as places, literally, not as functions, or roles. But let us think in the roles or functions of telecentres. To main role of telecentres is to enable public access to the to the Information Society.
Accessing the Information Society used to mean accessing ICT infrastructures. But evidence is telling us that access is increasingly a matter of skills and, still, a matter of money. Why not focussing, thus, in providing skills at a very low price?
On the other hand, we know that while people is increasingly more confident with ICTs and use them in their everyday lives, institutions usually lack the awareness for using ICTs efficiently and effectively. In other words: despite individuals being able to use ICTs, this usage is not translated in institutional ICT usage.
I suggest it is time for developing a new modality of telecentre: the virtual telecentre. The virtual telecentre is insourced into a host organization. Unlike the usual IT department,
- The virtual telecentre has the functions and roles of a traditional telecentre, that is, enabling access at a very low price (or even free, through subsidies, etc.).
- As a traditional telecentre, too, the virtual telecentre operates in a network of virtual telecenters, who share amongst them strategies and resources.
- The virtual telecentre has it easier to, at its time, outsource much of its administration (to the network or to the hosting institution), thus being able to concentrate on its specific tasks and goals.
Of course, this is a de facto public-private partnership, which improves targeting the beneficiaries of policies to public access to the Internet and the sustainability of the whole system: being insourced, there is a growing possibility to provide services for free (subsidised) and others for profit.
But, why a virtual telecentre?
The demand side of unemployment
Most policies (that is, all policies, not just “e-policies”) to fight unemployment are addressed to the supply side of the job market: the worker or the unemployed. Training, improving employability, new skills, new competences, how to apply for a job, how to better write and disseminate your resume. And telecentres are contributing and quite well to this endeavour. I am OK with that, but it is only half the story.
There is increasing evidence that SMEs are less competitive than bigger firms, and that part of this lack of competitiveness is due to the lack of knowledge or traning in management of their decision-makers. A corollary of the previous statement is that, due to this lack of knowledge they also lack the knowledge on how to apply ICTs in their production functions. In other words, they neither know the tools nor the benefits of e-commerce, e-business, cloud computing, social media, ERPs, CRMs, teleworking and net-working, etc.
And the thing is that these decision-makers rarely visit telecentres. In the best scenario they will attend a specific course on a given topic. But most of them will not seek for help in telecentres and most of them will not be able to pay for professional consultancy.
And here is where the virtual telecentre may make sense: by insourcing the telecentre, advice and facilitation is not outside the firm, but inside, that is, at reach. And by being a telecentre — and not an external for-profit company — that advice and facilitation is affordable by SMEs.
The virtual telecentre could become a useful trojan horse to fight the digital divide from the inside of the entreprise, and from there, to contribute the fight against unemployment, by helping especially SMEs to make the best of ICTs in terms of better organization, productivity and competitiveness.
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.
Telecentres, cybercafes, libraries and civic centres with Internet access… Internet public access points have evolved into much more that just places where access to online content and services is provided. There has been an evolution of public access points, and most of them have taken up a role of promoting digital and social inclusion, either directly or indirectly.
Even more important, other institutions not specifically aimed at promoting ICT usage — firms, schools, universities, governments… — have set up “ICT spaces” to help with the adoption of ICTs within their walls.
Those ICT spaces are usually run by a person or a team with a singular collection of skills: they are managers, they are computer engineers, they are social workers, they are communicators, they are educators… all at the same time.
During much of year 2011 I had the luck to be working with the Catalan Government and its Institut Català de les Qualificacions Professionals (ICQP) [Catalan Institute for professional qualifications, part of the Catalan Ministry of Education] to try and define what were the competences, skills and, very important, training required to run an ICT space.
There were five of us on the team: two of us — Isidre Bermúdez Ferran, from Fundación Esplai, a major telecentre actor in Spain, and I — provided experience on the field, while three others — Xavier Delgado Alonso, from the Catalan Institute of Social Services, and Manuela Merino Alcántara and Bru Laín i Escandell, from ICQP — provided all the methodological background.
Working sessions were really intense and what was learnt from the whole process was incredible. Now, the result of our work has been made public for public scrutiny and can now be downloaded from the ICQP website, both in Catalan and Spanish. Comments are really welcome.
Paper Session: Meaning and ICTD
Looking Beyond ‘Information Provision’: The Importance of Being a Kiosk Operator in the Sustainable Access in Rural India (SARI) Project, Tamil Nadu, India
How has changed the life of the women that operate information kiosks in India?
Information kiosks provide information on agriculture, prices, government services, etc. especially to reduce information asymmetry in the population.
- Do info kiosks actually end up providing information to everybody in a community? (IIITB, 2005)
- Does provision of information naturally improved socio-economic conditions? (Gopakumar, 2004)
- Is information provision the main role player of info kiosks in practice?
This research puts the stress on the last point.
The project focuses on information asymmetry framed as the problem and information provision as the solution. In this framework, ICTs are the tools that enable the solution.
Kiosk operators have many duties and interactions that go beyond mere service provision: interact with other operators, with elected leaders, with residents, bureaucrats, domain experts, and with the Dhan for meetings and training sessions.
At the e-Government level, the kiosk has several objectives such as information provision (schemes, procedures, records) and improving state-vilage resident interactions (transparency, efficiency).
Outcomes for kiosk operators:
- Seeing the state (and other domains) differently: awareness (schemes, procedures, techniques, who’s who), interaction (frequency, diversity, learning by doing, coping, dealing, negotiating).
- Being seen by the village differently: status in the community (“girl with the computer”, “girl for certificates”).
Q: So, the research showed that there were a lot of unpredicted consequences/outcomes for kiosk operators, but… what happened with the intended outcomes? A: We found that they were not in conflict and, actually, they were mutually reinforced.
The Social Meaning of ICTs: Patterns of Technology Adoption and Usage in Context
Cynthia Putnam, Beth Kolko
3 rounds survey (2006, 2007, 2008) in four countries in Central Asia to compare Internet users in that region with US Internet users (using for those data from the Pew Internet Life survey).
- Technology acceptance model (TAM): external variables determine perceived userfulness and ease of use, that determine attitude, intentions and effective usage.
- Diffusion of Innovations (DOI): characteristic of the technology, diffusion channels of how technology is communicated, time and social assistance. These issues define 5 characteristics of an innovation: relative advantage, complexity or ease of use, compatibility with existing values, trial-ability and observability.
Data (2008) showed that for Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan most of Internet users were innovators and early adopters, while in the US, at that time (PEW data for 2007) there already were many laggards now using the Internet.
Predictors were calculated with income and other variables and the resultant statistic proved to be a good predictor on who would be online in Kyrgyzstan or Kazakhstan at a specific time. Internet users share demographic similarities when compared to non-users. On the other hand, usage is also pretty similar between countries and within profiles.
Jim Murphy states that there should be much more focus (work) on the context and in the framework where all this technology adoption if framed into.
Information and Communication Technologies and Development (2010)
From digital inclusion to information literacy
Chair: Brasilina Passarelli, Daisy Grisolia, Fernanda Scur, Mariana Tavernari — Escola do Futuro
Senior people, though they still use the Internet very little, the fraction of users is increasing very fast in recent years (1% in 2006, 3% in 2009).
Indeed, Internet users become very intensive users and use a broad range of online tools. On the other hand, elderly people going online become more independent and, over all, become more independent when it comes to learning about the Internet.
They use more their computers at home, use the Internet to browse about citizenship and health (which makes them different from other Interent users).
Now, the telecentre has shifted from a place where to go online to a place to gather with their peers.
So, what should be the future of this infocentre/telecentre given the new data?
Telecentres/infocentres seem to be fighting for who’s in charge of information literacy, and they should cooperate more.
Michael Downey: Should we force things like infocentres within “ancient” structures? Why not develop something new and organic to support the use of ICTs?
My own opinions on this issue can be found at:
Information and Communication Technologies and Development (2010)