4 Digital Inclusion: Opening Doors

Digital inclusion is the most obvious and directly observable impact that public access venues have on users. For the purposes of this study, digital inclusion is defined as having access to the physical and human support tools that people need in order to participate in an increasingly digital world. Opinions differ about how narrowly or broadly to define digital inclusion (see for example Seale, 2009). For analytical purposes this report distinguishes between digital inclusion and social inclusion outcomes, while recognizing that the two are often closely intertwined. The Global Impact Study defines digital inclusion to cover more than mere physical access to technology, but not to include outcomes that are generally out of the direct control of the public access venue. The latter types of impacts are categorized as social and economic impacts, which can be considered pointers to the achievement of social inclusion. Separating digital inclusion from social inclusion simplifies analysis, allows for clearer identification of the contribution of public access venues, and, importantly, acknowledges that digital inclusion does not automatically lead to social or economic inclusion.

Digital inclusion can be facilitated in different ways through different technologies and institutional structures. Here the focus is on computer and internet technologies — specifically the computer-based facilities and services that public access venues offer — to examine the extent to which these resources contribute to bringing populations into the information society at the level of basic access and use of these two technologies. This inclusion may be direct or indirect, and it may be purposeful or incidental, but it is an important foundation for inclusive forms of social participation. Public access venues whose primary goal is to provide access to computers and the internet (such as cybercafés) are especially well placed to deliver this impact. For other venues, such as libraries and telecenters, providing access to ICTs may be considered rather a means to serve broader social goals. These venues deliver digital inclusion impacts incidentally, in the course of targeting social inclusion impacts. In both cases, it is important to recognize digital inclusion as a legitimate impact of public access ICTs.

Data from the five country surveys (as well as most of the in-depth case studies) show three distinct areas of this first-order effect:

  1. Technology access
  2. Information access
  3. Development of ICT skills

This section discusses findings on the nature of these digital inclusion outcomes, showing that public access venues are a critical source of basic access to computers and the internet, in addition to serving as foundational ICT training grounds for low- and middle-income populations.

Technology access

Public access ICT venues have made computer and internet technology accessible to a large population of users who would otherwise have limited or no access to computers and related technologies. Even with the growing levels of mobile phone adoption and the associated potential of the mobile internet in low-income communities, it is evident that computer and internet access challenges have not been completely eradicated in those communities.[1]

For more than half of the user survey respondents, a public access venue provided them with their first ever contact with computers (50%) and the internet (62%). This signals the importance of public access in preparing people for entry into the digital information society. Figure 4.1 shows that for first computer use, the proportions were in the range of 33%–60%. Even in Chile, with the highest national penetration of computers and internet use of the countries surveyed, the figures for first computer use were high. The pattern is even stronger for internet use: in the two poorest countries, Bangladesh and the Philippines, two-thirds and three-fourths of responders first used the internet at a public access venue.

Figure 4.1: First use of computer and internet at a public access venue

Figure 4.1: First use of computer and internet at a public access venue

Users with lower socioeconomic status (based on personal income and educational level) were somewhat more likely than those with higher status to have first used computers and the internet at a public access venue (Figures 4.2 and 4.3). Overall, higher proportions of those with incomes below the poverty line had first used computers at a public access venue (66%, compared to 34% of those above the poverty line); a similar pattern holds for first internet use (66% compared to 34%). A similar trend can be seen for educational level, although the differences are smaller than for income level. In light of the generally higher-than-average income and educational levels of public access users (Chapter 3), this finding provides an important additional perspective. Although public access venues attract larger numbers of more well-to-do users, they play a particularly essential “first touch” role for people at lower socioeconomic levels.

Figure 4.2: First use of computers and internet at a public access venue, by income level

Figure 4.2: First use of computers and internet at a public access venue, by income level

Figure 4.3: First use of computers and internet at a public access venue, by educational level

Figure 4.3: First use of computers and internet at a public access venue, by educational level

Female users (53%) were also more likely than male users (49%) to have had their first contact with a computer at a public access venue (Figure 4.4), although the difference was not large (Figure 4.4).

Figure 4.4: First use of computers and internet at a public access venue, by gender

Figure 4.4: First use of computers and internet at a public access venue, by gender

Furthermore, public access venues were the only source of access to the internet for at least a third (33%) of survey respondents (Table 4.1). This was particularly important for cybercafé (36%) and library (35%) users. For many users, public access venues were their only source of access to computers — about one-seventh (15%) of all users, and an even higher proportion of telecenter users (26%, versus 12% and 13% for cybercafé and library users).

Table 4.1: Main reason for using a public access venue (%)
All Libraries Cybercafés Telecenters Other
No other option for internet access 33 35 36 19 30
To work or be with friends or other people 18 10 20 13 16
Better equipment than home or work 15 16 17 8 15
No other option for computer access 15 13 12 26 14
To get help from venue staff 7 6 3 23 7
To get help from other users 2 4 2 3 2
Other 10 16 10 8 16
Total 100 100 100 100 100
Notes: n=4,790.

This table captures the central reason for using public access venues and does not imply that this is the only reason. Survey respondents were asked to select only one option. Thus, indicating that internet access is the main reason for using a venue does not mean that other reasons do not also apply. These figures represent the minimum proportion of users with a particular reason.

Table 4.1 also shows that sometimes using ICTs at public access venues is more affordable or more convenient than other options. “Better equipment than home or work” was the third most important reason for using public access, especially for cybercafé (17%) and library users (16%).[2] This study concludes that public access venues are relevant even for people who have alternative means of accessing ICTs (e.g., at home, work, or on a mobile phone). Such users may be driven to public access use by limitations of their personal access, whether technical (quality of computer hardware, bandwidth, access to peripheral equipment, or software availability), economic (e.g., high cost of mobile data), or social (e.g., lack of privacy at home or conducive environment to socialize with peers).[3]

Perhaps the most direct indication of the impact of public access venues on technology access can be seen in users’ response to the possibility of losing this access. The majority of respondents (over 55%) would use computers less if public access venues were no longer available. Telecenter users would be especially hard hit, with almost 80% indicating that their use of computers would decline, followed by library users (59%) and cybercafé users (49%). The numbers are particularly stark for Bangladesh: almost all respondents said their use of computers would decline if public access venues were no longer available (87% total, including 100% of library users and 93% of telecenter users). For the other countries, between 37% and 55% said their use would go down.

On the other hand, a fairly high proportion of users in three of the countries said they would maintain the same level of computer use if public access venues were no longer available: 56% in the Philippines, 47% in Chile, and 46% in Brazil, compared to 12% and 36% for Bangladesh and Ghana respectively. The evidence suggests that ICT access in Bangladesh (and to a lesser extent, Ghana) is much more constrained than in the other three countries, so that public access venues may be the only option many users find available to them. Public access venues provided the only source of ICT access to a relatively lower proportion of users in Brazil (28%) compared to the other four countries, where the percentage ranged from 47% to 59%. Overall, users in Bangladesh and Ghana seemed most dependent on public access, while users in Brazil seem to be least dependent.

Information Access

Beyond first making it possible to access the physical technology, public access ICT venues provide a gateway to livelihood-related and other types of information. In so doing, they expand users’ alternatives for acquiring information, and in some cases, may be the only avenues for some types of information to be found.

Information access was explored by asking users whether they had come to the venue to look for information, as well as whether they had performed certain information search activities at a public access venue and what outcomes they had achieved. The results indicate that users see public access venues as places where a broad range of information needs can be met. On the day they were surveyed, almost half of users (47%) had come to the public access venue to look for specific information (That proportion was relatively low in Brazil, at 28%.) Information interests spanned social, economic, and political purposes and varied across different types of venues (Table 4.2).

Table 4.2: Type of information sought at public access venues (%)
All Libraries Cybercafés Telecenters
Education 58 63 62 42
Entertainment 43 31 49 23
Employment and business opportunities 32 20 33 38
News 29 25 31 20
Government services 11 16 9 15
Health information 10 13 10 13
Culture and language 9 15 8 7
Note: n=1,990

Library and cybercafé users were most likely to be looking for education information (63% and 62% respectively); education information also topped the list among telecenter users, albeit at a lower rate (42%). Entertainment was quite high in cybercafés, at 49%, and it was the second category among libraries, at 31%, and the third among telecenters, at 23%. Some of these differences may be explained by the restrictions that are often placed on such activities in libraries and telecenters.[4] Information-seeking concerning employment and business opportunities was proportionally higher in telecenters (38%), also strong in cybercafés (33%), and somewhat less so in libraries (20%). Information-seeking on government services was lowest in cybercafés, while news (local and international) was the lowest among telecenter visitors.

Levels of search activity varied across different domains. The general trend was that those looking for information in a particular domain of activity tended to find it, and a majority also tended to put that information to use and/or to experience some gain. This outcome was fairly consistent across different domains: in all but one case (finding information on online health services), over 90% of respondents found the information they were looking for, through computers at a public access venue. Considering that a public access venue is the only source of access to computers or the internet for 50% of users, such high levels of goal accomplishment underlines the value of public access venues as information gateways. This outcome is discussed further in Chapter 5.

ICT skills

The third contribution public access venues make to digital inclusion is in promoting the development of ICT skills — helping users build the knowledge and skills they need to use computer hardware and software and to navigate internet resources. These skills are part of the foundation for digital literacy. Digital literacy itself is a complex construct, encompassing a range of indicators. For example, Eshet-Alkalai (2004) conceptualizes it as a collection of five social and cognitive skills — namely, photovisual, reproduction, branching, information, and socioemotional — and develops measures to test for these skills. In contrast, Rissola and Centeno (2010, p.18) define digital literacy as “critical and confident use of ICT, including: ability to participate in social networking applications and in collaborative environments, awareness of security threats and risks, and also ability to use ICT for creative and innovative purposes, irrespectively of the context.”

For the purposes of the Global Impact Study surveys, contribution to the development of ICT skills is assessed by asking users where their computer and internet skills were developed, without delving into specifics about what types of skills have been obtained. Users identified public access venues as the most important place for development of their computer (40%) and internet (50%) skills(Table 4.3).

Table 4.3: Most important place for developing ICT skills (%)
Computer skills Internet skills
Public access venue 40 50
Home 23 18
School 23 17
Note: n=4,979

The trends for socioeconomic status were similar to the data on technology access. Users with lower personal incomes and lower educational levels showed a higher tendency to identify public access as the most important place for developing their computer and internet skills (Figures 4.5 and 4.6).

Figure 4.5: Public access venue as most important place for developing skills, by income level

Figure 4.5: Public access venue as most important place for developing skills, by income level

Figure 4.6: Public access venue as most important place for developing skills, by educational level

Figure 4.6: Public access venue as most important place for developing skills, by educational level

Public access venues were important digital learning grounds for both male and female users, topping the list of most important places for both genders (Table 4.4).

Table 4.4: Most important place for computer and internet skill development, by gender (%)
Computers (n=4,912) Internet (n=4,606)
Venue Male Female Male Female
Public access venue 41 35 54 44
School 22 28 16 22
Home 22 23 16 20
Friend’s house 8 7 7 8
Work 7 7 7 6
Total 100 100 100 100

Infomediation

Apart from providing access to ICT equipment on which users can teach themselves digital skills, public access venues also have staff members who can support users with technical or informational needs. This function of public access venues is generally associated with libraries and telecenters, but it is not necessarily absent from profit-oriented venues such as cybercafés.[5] A number of questions in the user survey explored the use of this support facility. The data suggest that, when set against the need for basic technology access, seeking staff assistance was not a highly ranked reason for using public access venues. (But see the discussion below regarding the unique case of Bangladesh.)

Overall, 7% of users indicated that getting help from venue staff was their main reason for using a public access venue, and about 16% said they seek staff assistance frequently (every time or most times they visited a venue). Requests for help were most often related to problems with internet connectivity (45%), computer software (19%), and computer hardware (16%) (Figure 4.7).

Figure 4.7: Most common type of staff assistance sought

Figure 4.7: Most common type of staff assistance sought

Not surprisingly, the most important staff qualities cited related to their technical skills — knowledge and skill in hardware use (33%) and skill in software use (26%). Somewhat less important were the softer skills — information searching (17%) and empathy (10%) (Figure 4.8). The overwhelming reason why users did not seek help from venue staff was that they did not need help (90%).

Figure 4.8: Reasons for seeking assistance from venue staff

Figure 4.8: Reasons for seeking assistance from venue staff

Bangladesh presents a deviation from the general trend, both in reasons for going to public access venues and in the frequency of seeking assistance from venue staff. Overall, a relatively small proportion of users cited seeking staff assistance as their primary reason for using public access — but a majority (60%) of these responses came from Bangladesh and from telecenter users. This point illuminates the central role of public access in Bangladesh, while also highlighting the complex relationship between country context and venue type (specifically telecenters and libraries).

As noted in Chapter 3, public access users in Bangladesh tended to have the shortest history of experience with both computers and the internet, and were more likely to rate their skills at lower levels than other users (poor or fair). Thirty percent reported less than one year of computer experience, compared to 4%–8% for other countries. One-quarter reported less than one year of internet experience, compared to 4%–13% for other countries. It makes sense then, to find that 22% of respondents from Bangladesh said their main reason for going to a public access venue was to get help from venue staff (compared to 3%–5% for other countries). Moreover, a much higher proportion of respondents from Bangladesh (43%) sought venue staff assistance very frequently (every time or most times they visited a venue) (Figure 4.9).

Figure 4.9: Frequency of seeking assistance from venue staff, every time or most times, by country

Figure 4.9: Frequency of seeking assistance from venue staff, every time or most times, by country

The data also show that 64% of telecenters users in the survey were in Bangladesh, and that telecenter users were more likely to indicate that their main reason for going to a public access venue was to get assistance from venue staff (23%, compared to under 7% for library and cybercafé users). Telecenter users were also more likely to cite public access as the most important place for developing their computer and internet skills (59% and 64% respectively, compared to 33% and 41% for library users and 35% and 49% for cybercafé users).

These findings provide context for the technology access discussion: telecenter users’ top three reasons for using public access were computer access, help from venue staff, and internet access (Table 4.1). These priorities of telecenters users, most of whom are in Bangladesh, are particularly relevant in a country that is still in the relatively early stages of computer and internet diffusion. Conversely, for library users, the top three reasons for using public access venues were internet access, better equipment, and working with friends, suggesting a context in which higher levels of familiarity with computer and internet technologies allow a shift to purposes that transcend simple access. Indeed, 71% of library users in the sample were in Chile, with a higher rate of home computer and internet access, and libraries that are relatively well-resourced with public access computing facilities. In the Bangladesh/telecenter context, this trend highlights the importance of public access venues as sources of assistance for novice computer and internet users.

An in-depth study on sharing practices in Ghana — which has the second highest incidence of public access users seeking assistance from venue staff — provides additional support for the importance of infomediaries for users with less familiarity with ICTs.[6] The study found that cybercafé users generally turned to venue staff for help when they encountered a problem they could not resolve on their own. Consistent with the broader findings illustrated in Figure 4.7, 86% of respondents in the in-depth study stated that they ask the venue staff for technical assistance if they have a problem with the computer systems.

The staff support services offered by public access venues were valued not only by users in Bangladesh and Ghana. Seeking staff assistance, while not the primary reason most public access users went to a venue, was cited as an important criterion for selecting which venue to use. More than half (53%) of all users cited as a very important factor that “venue staff are knowledgeable and helpful,” in choosing which public access venues to visit (Figure 4.10).

Figure 4.10: “Very important” factors in choosing which public access venue to go to

Figure 4.10: “Very important” factors in choosing which public access venue to go to

An in-depth study of Bangladesh, Chile, and Lithuania provided confirming evidence of the higher value attached to infomediaries in Bangladesh. Importantly, they also showed that both novice and experienced users valued the services of an effective infomediary, for both technical and non-technical support. The in-depth study showed that, while technical abilities of the venue staff were consistently rated as more important than their empathy, empathy was still considered important by both novice and advanced users.

Summary

Public access facilities contribute to digital inclusion by bridging a variety of digital divides. They expand access to ICT infrastructure and to a variety of information resources, and they support the development of ICT skills. Libraries, cybercafés, and telecenters alike were an important source of basic access to ICTs. They provided the first ever contact with computers and the internet for more than half of the users surveyed, and they served as the only source of access to the internet for at least a third of users.

Public access venues were also effective information gateways for users: over 90% of respondents looking for information found what they were looking for. Finally, public access contributed to ICT skill development, with a large proportion of users identifying public access venues as the most important places for development of their computer and internet skills. The role of public access in facilitating digital inclusion is underscored by the finding that over 50% of users would see a reduction in their use of computers if public access venues were no longer available. While these benefits were enjoyed by all public access users, they appear to have special significance for users from relatively low socioeconomic backgrounds.


  1. See the Global Impact Study report on use of the mobile internet in South Africa (Walton & Donner, 2012).
  2. An equal percentage reported “no other option for computer access.”
  3. See Chapter 7. See also the Global Impact Study reports on the mobile internet in South Africa (Walton & Donner, 2012) and on interpersonal communication and public access ICTs in the Philippines (Alampay, forthcoming).
  4. For discussion of the value of playful uses of ICTs, see Chapter 7 as well as the Global Impact Study report on non-instrumental uses (Kolko, forthcoming).
  5. See Chapter 7 as well as the Global Impact Study report on infomediaries for examples (Ramirez, Parthasarathy, & Gordon, forthcoming).
  6. See Chapter 7, as well as the Global Impact Study report on collaborative knowledge sharing (Best et al., 2012 forthcoming).

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