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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
Presentation: Javier Nadal, Executive Deputy Chairman of Fundación Telefónica
There are few technologies, if any, that have been so quickly adopted as Information and Communication Technologies, in general, and mobile telephony, in particular.
And it is very worth noting that this adoption has not happened in the same way around the globe. Different regions, cultures, communities have and are using mobile telephony in many and very different ways. Thus the need to do thorough research in this field, and see how mobile telephony can empower and develop communities and individuals.
Manuel Castells, sociologist, director of the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute of the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya (UOC) and author of the book.
The three things people value the most are Health, Education and the ability to communicate. And if we consider Education as Communication, we can narrow the priorities to just Health and Communication.
That is why ICTs are such a powerful phenomenon, with pervasive and fast rates of penetration and adoption. And the more important is a phenomenon, the more the need to perform research on it, to analyse it, understand it and, if needed, affect its path.
The book is not a descriptive one, but an analytical one, taking data from Telefónica and CEPAL-ECLAC to be able to perform econometric regressions.
Main conclusions of the econometric analysis:
There is a proven, statistically significant, systematic, positive effect of mobile phones upon economic growth, especially in poorest countries and especially in poorest regions.
Inequality is neither increased nor decreased because of mobile technologies. Mainly because adoption rates are so high (circa 80% in general) that any strata of society does have access to mobile telephony.
There is an impact of mobile phones decreasing poverty.
This last statement is especially proven by the qualitative analyses performed in the book (see below the case studies), which show:
A positive impact on employment. As many people work autonomously, thanks to mobile phones they can get jobs/works done without the bounds of more rigid organizational structures.
People find employment more quickly thanks to disintermediation of the job market.
Increase in security — and the feeling of security — of people: distant communication reduces exposure to different kinds of violence and hazards.
There is an increase in the autonomy of people, but at the same time increasing the connectivity amongst people and increasing the feeling of community, of a common identity. But not any autonomy, but “secure autonomy”.
If we take the context of schools, it is clear that the educational system is lagging behind the evolution of technology, and educators and policy-makers should definitely rethink their teaching strategies and leverage the power of mobile techonology and mobile (i.e. ubiquitous) access to knowledge [I personally disagree with Castells that laptops at school should be replaced with mobiles: I believe the problem is not the device, but the educational model].
Ismael Peña-López: despite the high rates of adoption and, thus, the lack of impact in quantitative terms on inequality, what happens in qualitative terms? Are we witnessing evidence for the knowledge gap hypothesis? Castells: absolutely. What we see is that technology adoption is not affecting inequality, but social inequality does affect unequal technology adoption (e.g. poors not accessing broadband). Nevertheless, the inequality of mobile adoption, or the inequality in communications, is not as important as socio-economic inequalities, and that is a very important fact.
Q: how is it that people spend relatively so much in communications instead of “food”? Castells: the main reason is because it is worth it: mobile phones have an impact on employability, for instance, and very important too, on socialization, which, at its turn, has an impact on employability and inclusion in general. That’s why: communications are of crucial importance nowadays and do have an impact on each and every aspect of our lives.
Q: is there a different impact depending on e.g. gender? Castells: there is, but not because of the gender factor, but because the gender factor already made a difference in the “real” world. For instance, in the Peruvian Andes markets are set up by women. Thus, the impact of mobiles on those women was higher than on men, but not because of their gender, but because of their important role on the local economies.
The book performs a thorough and deep analysis on how mobile technologies have had an impact on Latin America, both at the economic and social levels. After two initial chapters depicting the framework and context, the book goes on estimating the quantitative impact of mobile telephony on economic growth and poverty alleviation, then moving onto mobile usage in rural areas, social businesses for e-inclusion, technology appropriation and usage among youth.
The table of contents is as follows:
Introduction: Mobile communication and development in Latin America in the XXIst century; Roxana Barrantes Cáceres, Mireia Fernández-Ardèvol, Sebastián Ureta.
Socio-economic context and ICT diffusion in Latin America; Mireia Fernández-Ardèvol, Andrea Molinari, Javier Vázquez Grenno.
Estimation of the contribution of mobile telephony to growth and poverty alleviation; Mireia Fernández-Ardèvol, Javier Vázquez Grenno
Mobile telephony in rural areas: case study in Puno, Peru; Roxana Barrantes Cáceres, Aileen Agüero, Mireia Fernández-Ardèvol.
Mobile telephony and inclusive businesses: Proyecto SUMA in Argentina; Hernán Galperin, Andrea Molinari.
Appropriation and usage: case study in Brasil; François Bar, Francis Pisani, Carlos Seabra.
Mobile youth culture in an urban environmetn: case study in Santiago de Chile; Sebastián Ureta, Alejandro Artopoulos, Wilson Muñoz, Pamela Jorquera.
Synthesis of results and conclusions; Manuel Castells, Mireia Fernández-Ardèvol, Hernán Galperin.
Eric Brewer: Contributions of Technical Research on ICT4D
Traditional development has a very top-down approach, with international agencies funding projects, often with sting and debt attached, difficult to manage (e.g. corruption) and usually with little role for high technology. This just does not fit ICT4D projects’ necessities and way of proceeding.
Cellphones’ evolution was very different: driven by bottom-up demand, because of the ease of use (voice), a dire need for communications (work, remittances…).
Remittances to Africa are circa US$40B and imply much more money than the one involved in aid. This should give an idea about the power of microloans. The Grameen Bank is owned entirely by the poor and has loaned more than US$3.9B. It is mainly used for very short run (up to 6 months) loans, aimed for instance at buying a goat that will pay back the loan with its milk, or paying for seeds that will pay back the loan once harvested. Loans are chained one to the next one and create an important funding and cash flow.
Grameen Telecom allows people to buy phones and rent them to their neighbours. The project covers 50,000-68,000 villages and 60M. The most important thing is that it scales and that the owner (the ‘phone lady’) is indeed interested in the maintenance of the equipment and the sustainability of the system.
Another example: I.T.Mountain.BPO for medical transcription: voice in, text out for medical issues.
The real digital divide is between urban and rural areas: for instance, the mobile phone is an urban phenomenon, as many rural areas have no cellular coverage.
We need to bring connectivity to rural areas, and here is where WiFi comes to the rescue.
It has already been demonstrated that the problem is not distance, but line of sight: you can send a signal as far as you can (literally) see. We need to find natural towers (e.g. mountains, hills) to be able to see further.
Aravind Eye Hospital Network: doctors stay at the hospital, patients stay at their homes. 4-5Mb/s per link, video-conferencing — high quality and video are important because the interview really matter —, e-mail, training. Achieved 6,000 consultations/month, over 160,000 patients so far, centers are cash-flow positive, over 30,000 patients have recovered sight, growing to 50 centres covering 2.5M people and possibility to replicate in other cities.
Computers that, nevertheless, are small, portable, have self-contained power, easy to use, culturally accepted…
SmartPhone diagnostic device that, connected to the audio jack (and phones are good at converting analogue signals into digital ones), can provide measurements on heart rate, respiratory rate, temperature, blood oxygen, ECG, fetal heart rate or even blood pressure. The result is a much much cheaper and easy to use diagnostic device. The phone can either convert the raw data into readings of forward them through the GSM network.
CellScope: Cellphone Microscope = (phone) camera + big lens. Its use can be to diagnose malaria after a blood sample is put under the cellscope.
m-Learning: teach English via smartphones and by using educational games. Games have to be based on traditional local games to provide the learner with a familiar and thus understandable context.
Fernando Balducci: we definitely have to avoid the confusion between tele-diagnosis and self-diagnosis, which is a hazard we might run into when such tools become more and more present in end-users’ hands.
Javier Simó: concurrence or cooperation? A: concurrence, but informed concurrence. Every place is different, so solutions cannot be replicated in a strictly straightforward way. And for being informed, a certain degree of cooperation is required.
Q: what about call centres? A: a call center requires connectivity, low power, simple infrastructures. So call centres can be a good way to start to create employment in rural areas. But we should be beyond that (including going beyond software development centres).
David Chávez: smartphone or cloud computing? A: it is very likely that computing power of the phone will increase at a faster path than mobile broadband will. Thus why latest developments have gone into the direction of making the phone perform more work than instead sending to and fro data to “computing centres” to perform these tasks.
Vanessa Frías: how is assessment performed in smartphones? A: within the traditional education system, this kind of assessment is very difficult, as it often implies interaction, synchronous meetings, etc. This is why vocational programmes generally work better than for-credit educational programmes. Indeed, there are other security- and privacy-related issues that are still difficult to handle in m-learning.
I International Workshop on Research in ICT for Human Development (2010)
Ramon Roca: Guifi.net: Success Case of Participative Communications Networks
A different model based on:
Social inclusion and geographic equilibrium;
Return of investment not based on commercial margins;
Benefit from network structures.
Guifi.net is a network of networks according to the “XOLN” (Xarxa Oberta Lliure i Neutra: Open, Free and Neutral Network) commons participated by individuals or institutions; where participations add up, interconnecting and creating an IP traffic public network.
It is important to stress the fact that the network is a commons: anyone has a predominant position in the network despite the fact that some people can contribute with more resources to it: thus, the community avoids that some users implicitly had more power than others. A foundation manages the network, which is open, free, neutral and collectively “owned”.
Browse the slides to see how it works  and the software applications included :
Some outcomes of the public network: though the penetration in e.g. Osona (a rural area in Catalonia, where Guifi.net is more present) is lower than the European and Spanish averages, the number of people that accessed the Internet from home is much higher than the European and Spanish averages, at much of these results can be directly attributed to the penetration of wireless networks through Guifi.net membership. This seriously challenges the e-empowerment model based in subsidising private companies instead of local communities.
I International Workshop on Research in ICT for Human Development (2010)
The Xarxa Òmnia is the largest network of telecentres in Catalonia and one of the largest in whole Spain. The network was set up in 1999 and, since its conception, it has always had a strong community-focused aim which made of their telecentres — or Punt Òmnia [Òmnia Point] — more than just public Internet access points, but more tools of (e-)inclusion and community building.
Now that Xarxa Òmnia has turned 10 years old, the yearly rendez-vous of the whole network, the Jornada Òmnia, will focus on how should the network evolve in the coming years, taking into special account the changes that have been happening in the last 10 years in matters of the Information and the Network Society, and what are the challenges that policy makers and telecentre administrators will have to face to successfully fight the digital divide and the risks of (e-)exclusion.
I have been invited to introduce both these aspects. And my point has been already been made in the way that I write (e-)inclusion and (e-)exclusion: in my opinion, e-inclusion or e-exclusion will increasingly be a matter of inclusion/exclusion rather than being centre on the “e-“. Obvious as this might sound (i.e. inclusion being a matter of inclusion), the devil is in the details:
Real impact of ICTs will come — I believe — by them enabling, enhancing and empowering the analogue part of our lives: e-inclusion should be about ICTs finding ways to help people be part of a community, not about pouring people in the Internet (the “e-” focus of e-inclusion), notwithstanding a recurrent strategy in many Information Society policies;
People not online are, increasingly, people actively refusing to be online. While it is still true that many people don’t go online because of impossibility to access the Internet (hardware, connectivity, affordability, skills, etc.), we also find people that being able to access it, just don’t want to or even walk out of it. Lack of awareness, belief that ICTs bring nothing good to their lives, technophobia, etc. are keeping them disconnected and in risk not of e-exclusion but exclusion at all.
Thus, here’s my presentation:
The main points and rationale of my presentation are:
The Digital Revolution puts at stake the economy of scarcity (at least at the information and knowledge levels), brings down transaction costs and introduces a new actor into the equation: machines that substitute brain work (as other machines substituted muscle work in the Industrial Revolution)
The effect of these three aspects, puts at stake institutions? Do schools, firms, governments, the media or civic organizations still have a role in mediating between citizens? Or will citizens bypass them? What if they do? What if citizens themselves are bypassed by their peers?
If hierarchies and institutions give way to — or are deeply transformed by — networks, inclusion will be a matter of staying connected and being able to re-program oneself to be kept within the network.
New (digital) competences will be crucial for that, from technological literacy to e-awareness.
Thus, we might be needing to reframe our policies and foster pull strategies instead of pull strategies; we might also reconsider the role of our (e-)inclusion tools (telecentres amongst them), that might need shifting from the “e-” to the “inclusion”, strongly focussing on community building, enhanced by technologies.
This presentation is a wonderful occasion for me to gather up things I’ve been working on and thinking about in the last two years. In some way, it collects the reflections I already made in the following speeches (in chronological order):
I want to thank Cesk Gasulla, Noemí Espinosa, Marta Jové, Sònia Castro, Dolors Pedrós and the rest of the organizing committee for the invitation and the valuable chance to organize my reflections and think aloud in public. Moltes gràcies!