Mapping the new telecentre

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.

Scheme of a project-centered personal learning environment
Mapping the new telecentre: networks

[Click to enlarge]

Establishing partnerships

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.

Scheme of a project-centered personal learning environment
Mapping the new telecentre: partnerships

[Click to enlarge]

Community building

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.

Scheme of a project-centered personal learning environment
Mapping the new telecentre: communities

[Click to enlarge]

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.

Originally to be published on September 3, 2014, as Mapping the New Telecentre at Telecentre.org’s Expert Corner. A Spanish version of this article has also been published as Mapeando el nuevo telecentro. All the articles published in that blog can also be accessed here.

The virtual telecentre and the demand side of unemployment

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:

  • People.
  • Innovation.
  • Sustainability.

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?

Transforming telecentres

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.

eAsia2009 (I): Plenary Session, Track 2, pt.1

Notes from Asian Telecentre Forum 2009 / eAsia 2009 held in the BMICH, Colombo, Sri Lanka, on December 2-4th, 2009. More notes on this event: easia2009.

Plenary Session, Track 2 (pt.1)

Telecentre for a digital divergence era
Florencio Ceballos, telecentre.org

More and more mobiles in people’s hands, many of them in developing countries. 4.6 billion estimated by end of 2009. Thus, we might be facing not a digital divide, but a digital divergence: it’s not that people do not have access to ICTs, but that they have access to different qualities of ICTs. Difference between full access to the Knowledge Economy to restricted access to the Knowledge Economy.

Telecentres are a way to share enhanced access to the Knowledge Economy. But not only they provide access, but also skills, etc.

Why shared access? Well, not that new:

  • Public transportation
  • Shared bycicles in many cities in the world
  • Access to water through fountains at streets
  • Public libraires

Ownership, thus, is not the issue, but access to knowledge. And telecentres are the “sherpas” that facilitate this access to people.

Though sustainability is quite often raised as an issue, in fact, many times is lack of investment what strangles the viability of certain telecentres. With the appropriate investment, more (business) opportinities come at hand.

And public access is not at all a “solution for very poor countries”. Germany, Sweden, Spain, UK, etc. are amongst the countries that have a more developed (in quantity and quality) network of telecentes.

But of course, telecentres have to evolve. Some are using telecentres to access higher education courses, others to bring microcredit to rural areas…

The impact of the Cloud on Public Sector
Bash Badawi, Microsoft Public Sector APAC

The cloud:

  • software as a service,
  • data as a service,
  • platform as a service,
  • infrastructure as a service,
  • everything as a service.

It lowers the entrance costs to ITs, forces integration.

On the other hand, it’s fully scalable and you don’t even have to care about predicting how much usage, computing power, storage, etc. you will be needing. It’s just a pay-as-you-go.

Building a Smarter Planet: Government
Kevin North, IBM Asia Pacific Public Sector Business

We now have the aility to measure the condition of almost anything: e.g. with RFID cards we can constantl monitor the temperature of each and every cow in our herd.

The imperative for government today:

  • Deliver value
  • Exploit opportunities
  • Act with speed

The road to outsourcing:

  • Staff augmentation
  • Out-tasking
  • Co-sourcing
  • Portfolio outsourcing
  • Outsourcing

Q&A

Comment by attendant: India is increasing the number of mobile phones by 18,000,000 monthly, thrice the population of Finland.

Telecentre Forum 2009 - eAsia 2009 (2009)