1 Introduction

Millions of people around the world rely on public access venues — libraries, telecenters, and cybercafés — for computer and internet access and services. Public access venues allow people who may have no other means of access to participate in the information society, whether to obtain health information, learn computer skills, communicate with friends and family, or play games. Because having the skills and means to access the internet is essential in a world increasingly dependent on online resources and tools, a global movement developed to equip communities with public computing facilities. Most of these venues are commercial, including the internet cafes, Cabinas Publicas, LAN houses, and other types of paid access that are collectively referred to in this report as cybercafés. Many others, especially in rural and other underserved areas, are supported by governments, development agencies, and foundations. These are the libraries and telecenters. Altogether there are countless public access venues worldwide, becoming a visible feature of most cities and towns and a significant means by which a large population of the world accesses ICTs.

The growth of public access venues around the world, particularly with the support of governments and other donors, poses a number of important questions: What is the impact of these venues on people’s lives? Do people measurably benefit, and how can this be determined? And do any benefits justify the investments necessary to provide this access? Finding answers to these questions is the purpose of this study.

Background

This is the most comprehensive study to date on this topic. The research was undertaken during five years, from 2007 to 2012, in eight countries, involving over 35 research partners at leading universities and research institutes around the world. This report represents the first summary output of the research.

The importance of this topic stems from a seeming paradox. On the one hand, in many countries the public access sector is vibrant. Existing programs continue to be supported and expanded, and new programs are being launched. The public investments are significant, especially in countries that want to emulate others’ successes. The cybercafé sector continues to thrive as well.

On the other hand, in some quarters, especially among development agencies, interest in public access has waned considerably, largely due to changes in the field of information and communication technologies and development (ICTD), even since the inception of this study in 2007. The reasons for this decline are multifold.

First, this period marks a shift in priority from general purpose access initiatives to more domain-specific efforts in the fields of health, agriculture, and education, among others. The increasing mainstreaming of ICTs is reflected in changed funding priorities that focus on more targeted applications.

A second reason is the explosion in mobile telephony. In 2007, there were 3.4 billion mobile subscriptions globally, including 2.1 billion in the developing world (ITU, 2012). In 2011, there were 6 billion overall, with most of the increase coming from the developing world (4.5 billion). The widespread availability of mobiles would appear to represent a solution to the problem of ICT access. This research devoted significant attention to the interplay between mobile phones and public access.

Third, existing research has not demonstrated clear evidence of public access impacts.

“[T]here is limited conclusive evidence on downstream impacts of public access to ICTs. The evidence that does exist suggests that the public access ICT model is not living up to the expectations placed on it. This is not necessarily because public access has had no impacts, but because its impact is particularly difficult to identify and measure. As a model, public access to ICTs has experienced success and failure, leading to both reinforcement of the belief that the model should be expanded and strengthened, as well as claims that public access ICTs are ultimately ineffective or even counter‐productive from the development perspective” (Sey and Fellows, 2009).

This project therefore aims to generate empirical evidence about a global phenomenon that continues to be prominent in the landscape of information and communication technologies. Evidence-based research is essential to inform the future development and execution of public access policies and practices.

All data, data collection instruments, methodological notes, and other resources from this study have been made open to other researchers, offering nearly limitless opportunities for further analysis. This represents the project’s commitment to open research. It is hoped that other researchers will take up the challenge and make further discoveries.

This report comes at an interesting time. While mobile phone applications may dominate headlines, there is also resurgent interest in the importance of place. This is demonstrated by the worldwide explosion of innovation centers, hackerspaces, and coworking facilities — physical spaces where people can access technology and interact with others. The international development community, after drifting away from public access, is now re-engaging, examining the value of place through this new lens. Is the community coming full circle? The project team hopes this report will provide a valuable contribution to ongoing discussions about the value of public access for international development.

Structure of report

This report is organized into ten main chapters.

Chapter 2 introduces the conceptual framework and research design of the study. It situates public access within a broader ecology of how people access and use ICTs, focusing on what makes public access potentially unique. The research design is multifaceted, including national inventories, three types of surveys, and a number of in-depth studies.

Chapter 3 presents the top-level findings from the inventories and the venue and user surveys, focusing on country differences and providing a backdrop for the detailed findings presented in subsequent chapters. It also documents impacts related to the magnitude of the public access phenomenon.

Chapter 4 discusses the first-order impacts of public access venues — technology access, information access, and ICT skills.

Chapter 5 discusses the second-order impacts in the six domains of interest: Communications & Leisure, Culture & Language, Education, Employment & Income, Governance, and Health. This report is especially interested in the impacts experienced by more marginal users — those of lower socioeconomic status, as well as females, youth, older users, and rural residents.

Chapter 6 examines non-users, an important population that is frequently overlooked in studies of public access to ICTs. This group includes ex-users who may have received benefits at earlier times in their lives, as well as people who indirectly benefit from public access through family or friends.

Chapter 7 explores five in-depth studies on prominent issues in the academic and general discourse on public access, relating to the usefulness and impact of public access to ICTs.

Chapter 8 examines the benefits and costs of public access. Using three methodologies, the report presents low and high estimations of how people value the types of impacts reported elsewhere in this study.

Chapter 9 offers conclusions and discussion, beginning with the study’s three research questions and moving through other salient findings with implications for development.

Chapter 10 presents a number of recommendations for three audiences: governments and other investors in public access; practitioners; and researchers.

This is a comprehensive report, synthesizing the findings from all components of the research. Readers may also be interested in the project’s other reports, which go into greater detail on specific topics (available at www.globalimpactstudy.org). These include the in-depth study reports (listed in Appendix 3), a literature review, a user profile paper, and others.

Further research carried out by the Amy Mahan Fellowship program[1] illuminates a variety of other public access features, uses, and outcomes.


  1. The Amy Mahan Fellowship Program aimed to strengthen the capacity of emerging developing country scholars and to increase the volume of quality research from developing countries in the area of public access to ICTs. The program was named in honor of Amy Mahan, a distinguished colleague and dear friend who was active in the field of ICT for development until her passing on 5 March 2009. For further information, visit http://www.upf.edu/amymahan/.

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