7 Looking Closer: Salient & Contested Issues

See Note[1]

Five in-depth case studies focus on specific aspects of public access, examining issues that tend to generate controversy about the usefulness and impact of public access. What is the importance of “infomediaries” — skilled venue staff who can intermediate between users and information resources? Does it make a difference for public access users to be in the company of others? What is the value of public access venues if they are largely used for gaming, social networking, or interpersonal communication? Is there a continued role for public access when a growing majority of the people they were designed to reach have access to mobile phones?
The purpose of these studies is to provide evidence-based findings that can help institutions and policymakers create informed and useful guidelines for public access venues, whether in libraries, schools, or other public facilities. The findings also suggest potentially fruitful avenues for public access technology design. Each of the five studies is summarized here, as well as presented in detail in separate reports (see Appendix 3).

Study overviews

By focusing on specific features of public access venues and their use, these five in-depth studies provide an important complement to the national surveys. They explore the specifics of usage patterns and, in some instances, measure observed practices: sharing behaviors; the character of infomediation the impact of “non-serious” uses; the impact of public and private computer-mediated communications; and the extent of mobile internet substitution for public ICT access. Each study focuses on particular research populations, such as Ghanaian cybercafé users, Brazilian LAN-house patrons, Filipino children of overseas workers, or South African youth.

Sharing: Understanding and Rethinking Shared Access

Because public access venues bring many users together in one place, they make it possible to share computers and use them collaboratively, in contrast with individual use of private ICT resources. The Sharing study surveyed 150 users in two Accra (Ghana) cybercafés, one urban and the other rural, to analyze collaborative co-present sharing in cybercafés and the impact associated with sharing. It found that public access enables a range of sharing and collaboration among patrons, from the most simplistic (such as asking a café employee a quick question) to more formalized (such as meeting business partners to work together around a single computer) to fleeting and voyeuristic (such as noticing an interesting website on a nearby computer screen). Participants highlighted the learning benefits of working together, rather than the cost savings of shared ICT access.

Infomediaries: Brokers of Public Access

Staff who serve as intermediaries between users and ICT resources represent an important feature of public access venues. To understand how these infomediaries affect the outcomes for public access venues users, this study compared Bangladesh, Chile, and Lithuania using a combination of infomediary interviews, user focus group discussions, library manager interviews, field visits, and ethnographic studies. The study found that the ability of infomediaries to empathize with public access venue users is as important as their technical skills. Infomediary assistance gave novice patrons confidence to learn about ICTs, providing an important path to social inclusion. Empathy involves a range of attitudes and behaviors, such as the capacity to understand the (often unexpressed) needs of variously skilled users, and to show flexibility and initiative in meeting those needs. The study found, however, that while technical skills are directly cultivated and valued, empathy is seldom explicitly codified or rewarded by public access venues. It also found that non-profit and for-profit venues did not differ much in how they encouraged staff empathy.

Non-Instrumental Use: Skills Acquisition, Self-Confidence, and Community-based Technology Teaching

Non-instrumental activities, such as gaming and social networking, draw many users to public access venues. This study examined whether these activities contribute to users’ acquisition of the computer skills that are associated with greater employability. The research design included: ethnographic observations in LAN-houses (Brazilian cybercafés), in the Brazilian states of Rio de Janeiro and Rio Grande do Sul; qualitative interviews of 45 users (30 urban and 15 rural) in one telecenter and nine LAN-houses in the state of Rio de Janeiro; and quantitative computer-based exercises administered to 303 LAN-house users in Rio de Janeiro and Porto Alegre. The study developed an “instrumentality index” to classify users into groups corresponding to different instrumental/non-instrumental activity mixes. It found that non-instrumental activities figured prominently in users’ introduction to computers. While respondents’ computer skills increased with overall computer use, the specific activity mix made little difference: “gaming” or “working,” when pursued at similar frequency, lead to comparable types and levels of computer skills.

Interpersonal: The Impact of Cybercafés on the Connectedness of Children Left Behind by Overseas Filipino Workers

Interpersonal communication — via instant messaging, social networking, Skype voice or video chat, and a myriad other channels — figures prominently among the activities attracting users to public access venues. The Interpersonal study explored the impact of interpersonal communication activities in public access venues on family connectedness within selected Filipino families where parents are working overseas. It surveyed 308 children, equally split between urban and rural settings, whose parents work overseas, to measure how well they knew their parents’ lives overseas, whether they thought their parents knew their lives back home, and how they perceived their parents’ efforts to better understand and monitor their own lives. The study found that internet access increased family connectedness, and in particular, that frequent and convenient access made a greater difference. Importantly, it found that private access in the home or via a child’s mobile phone was vastly superior to access in a public access venue, because of the greater convenience and privacy of home access. While family connectedness generally strengthens social cohesion, in this particular case it also makes it possible for Filipino workers to pursue employment opportunities overseas while taking an active part in the education of their children.

Mobile: Public Access, Private Mobile — The Interplay of Shared Access and the Mobile internet for Teenagers in Cape Town

“If you have the internet in your pocket, why do you still visit a public access venue?” This question motivated the fifth in-depth study, exploring the information practices of public access venue users in South Africa’s Western Cape Province. The study design included: interviews with 36 public access venue operators; detailed interviews and task analyses with 53 teenage users in six public access venues, including neighborhood libraries, larger central libraries, and cybercafés; and closed-end surveys with 280 public access venue users in Cape Town. It found that, overall, mobile phones and public access computers are no substitutes for one another: each corresponds to distinct activities and information behaviors, leading to different social, academic, or professional practices. In fact, the public users interviewed had developed elaborate, fine-grained practices combining the use of public access computers and mobile phones, taking best advantage of the complementary aspects of each. What the study did not find, however, was widespread evidence of synergies between mobile and public computer use, suggesting that there may be significant potential for greater integration of the two through adjustments in public access venue rules and services. Because mobile phone access is similarly exploding in many of the world’s countries, this study’s findings have broad international relevance. It suggests that while mobile internet access brings important benefits, it does not make public access obsolete.

Sharing, infomediation, & sociability: What is different about “public” access?

From even the most casual observation of users’ activities in public access venues, it is obvious that social interaction matters, and that the public character of these venues makes interaction with others possible. Many users come to public access venues to be with other users, whether friends or family members, business associates, or new acquaintances. Many also come to get help from venue staff, librarians, or instructors who teach at the venue. Whether they seek help or company, the social interaction that takes place in public access venues is an important draw. A defining characteristic of public access is that it makes such interaction possible. The broad user survey asked respondents to choose the main reason why they use public access venues, and found that 18% of respondents came to be with other users, and 9% came to get help (mostly from venue staff). (See Table 7.1.) While the responses varied among countries, shared space — “being with others,” getting help, or simply having some company — constitutes an important draw of public access venues for more than one-quarter of respondents overall. Policy and funding decisions need to take these aspects into consideration.

Table 7.1: Main reason for public access use (%)
All Bangladesh Brazil Chile Ghana Philippines
No other option for computer access 15 26 9 10 12 16
No other option for internet access 33 22 20 42 48 32
To work or be with friends or other people 18 13 28 9 16 23
To get help from other users 2 2 3 2 2 2
To get help from venue staff 7 22 3 4 5 3
Better equipment than home or work 15 10 26 16 12 15
Other 10 5 11 17 5 9
Total 100 100 100 100 100 100
Note: n=4,970. Data from user survey.

The in-depth studies on shared access and infomediaries complement these general findings, by delving into exactly how and why users value the environment of sociability and support that public access venues can provide. The other in-depth studies also underscore the importance of social interaction in public access venues.

Study 1. Understanding shared access

In many African countries, where computer ownership and internet access are rare, most people use computers and the internet in public access venues, especially in cybercafés. This phenomenon is often considered a second-best alternative to private individualized access, and is presumed to reflect economic constraints. Further, when people share computers within a public access venue, they are generally assumed to be doing so to save money. The Global Impact Study’s research framework set out to test these assumptions. The broad user survey found that economic reasons were not the primary reason for sharing: only 15% of respondents said they sometimes share computers with others at public access venues “to save money.” The most frequent reason given for sharing was because it was “more fun sharing” (35%).

The Sharing study surveyed 150 users in two Accra cybercafés: one was large, business-oriented, and centrally located; the other was small, family-owned, and located in the suburbs of Accra. Going beyond a basic understanding of sharing as “two or more people using one computer simultaneously,” one of the study’s goals was to better understand what users mean by “working and being with others.” Who shares computer and internet resources? Why? What practices have developed, with what impact? Are there ways for public access venues to leverage user interest in sharing to achieve greater impacts?

Cybercafés are social places

Both cybercafés are places where users come to interact with others. Half of the respondents usually come to the venue with other people — primarily friends, but also family members, and to a lesser extent business associates. Of those who come with others, 60% sat together, and 30% would follow what their companions are doing. Two-thirds of the respondents say they usually meet people they know at the café. Ghanaian cybercafés are evidently important social meeting places. Moreover, the physical setting and the social norms of the cafés also allow visitors to interact with each other, even while working on separate computers.

All kinds of people share

People tend to share computers in Ghanaian cybercafés regardless of demographic variables. Age, sex, ethno-linguistic group, and wealth indicators had little or no effect on sharing practices. In contrast, the broad user survey — while it shows little variation in sharing by country, education level, or gender (see Table 7.2) — found that younger and poorer users tended to share more often.

Table 7.2: Frequency of sharing, by country (%)
All Bangladesh Brazil Chile Ghana Philippines
Every time 4 4 7 3 3 5
Most of the time 6 11 1 5 7 8
Sometimes 18 22 11 22 18 17
Rarely 12 2 17 14 10 13
Never 60 61 64 56 62 57
Total 100 100 100 100 100 100
Note: n=4,709. Data from user survey.

Forty percent of the Sharing survey respondents reported that they had sometimes shared a single computer with others in the cybercafé, but only 2% said they always shared, while only 3% said they rarely shared. Three-quarters of respondents said they were interested in environments that support enhanced collaborative group work. Users also reported that sharing made their visits at the café more productive and fun. Furthermore, the study found only limited differences in responses between the urban and suburban cybercafé, suggesting that sharing practices cut across geographic boundaries.

There are many different ways to share

Public access enables different forms of sharing and collaboration, from the most simplistic (such as asking a café employee a quick question) to more formalized (such as meeting business partners and working together around a single computer) to fleeting and voyeuristic (such as glancing at a stranger’s computer screen and noticing an interesting website). While nearly half of the respondents said they had “shared” a computer in the café, the study found that this referred to different sharing practices. For two-thirds of those who shared, it meant sitting close to one another at a computer. For a smaller number of respondents, it meant sharing the use of the computer, either alternating using the computer or having one person use it while the other(s) offered directions. Interestingly, for only one in five users sharing the computer included sharing the cost.

In addition to explicit sharing, however, the study also uncovered less direct forms of sharing. Cybercafé users were found to engage in voyeuristic sharing — looking over someone’s shoulder and learning from watching what they are doing. The learning outcomes of this type of behavior are substantial: 39% claimed that they learned to search the web by watching others; 43% said they learned to use email that way; and 18% said they learned how to type that way.

Sharing for learning, not for savings

An important finding from the study is that the main reason for sharing computers in public access venues is not to save money, contrary to common assumptions. Less than 5% of respondents said saving money was their main motivation for sharing computers in public access venues. By contrast, almost three-quarters cited educational reasons: for 45%, the main reason to share was to learn from each other; for 28%, it was to teach others (Table 7.4). Further, 62% of those who reported sharing said they would continue to share even if public access venue services were cheaper.

Figure 7.1: Most important reason for sharing the use of a single computer
Figure 7.1: Most important reason for sharing the use of a single computer

While the question asked in this in-depth study was slightly different from that of the broad user survey, the finding is similar. Indeed, the user survey also found that (with the exception of Brazil and the Philippines) savings were the least often cited reason for sharing PCs, and this was consistent across all venue types (Table 7.3). The top two reasons for all countries combined (“more fun sharing,” and “not enough machines”) were not options in the in-depth study survey. Interestingly, in the Ghana data from the user survey the top reason for sharing was “to receive help from someone else,” which is similar to the in-depth study’s category, “learning from/teaching others.” (See Table 7.4.)

Table 7.3: Reasons for sharing, all survey countries (%)
All Libraries Cybercafés Telecenters Other
More fun sharing 35 30 39 25 33
Not enough machines 22 34 11 53 22
To receive help from someone else 20 20 22 15 23
To save money 15 8 19 4 11
Other 8 8 9 3 11
Total 100 100 100 100 100
Note: n=1,846. Data from user survey.
Table 7.4: Reasons for sharing, Ghana (%)
All Libraries Cybercafés Telecenters Other
To receive help from someone else 39 43 39 39 47
More fun sharing 31 43 31 15 33
Other 13 0 14 8 0
To save money 9 0 9 7 13
Not enough machines 8 14 7 31 7
Total 100 100 100 100 100
Note: n=349. Data from user survey.

An obvious form of collaboration is asking for help. Eighty-six percent of respondents reported asking for technical assistance from the cybercafé staff, while 37% said they had asked for help from friends or acquaintances; only 15% had sought help from strangers. Those who shared were much more likely to ask for help from strangers. Intriguingly, respondents were four times more likely to report that they had provided help to a stranger than that they had received help from a stranger.

In another important finding, 68% of users reported that sharing made coming to the public access venue more productive, while 37% said it made public access venues more fun. All users cited email as the most important activity, but sharers also mentioned social networking and commercial or business collaboration, in that order. Overall, users had strong positive and instrumental motivations for sharing (e.g., learning, more productive) rather than negative ones (e.g., avoid costs, no other option).

Sharers behave differently

While their demographic profile was not significantly different from that of non-sharers, respondents who identified themselves as sharers tended to have different attitudes and behaviors. They were more likely to come to the public access venue with others and more likely to seek help from strangers. They also tended to be less concerned about privacy and less likely to mind others looking over their shoulder for voyeuristic sharing. As there are significant differences between the motivations, practices, and goals of sharers and non-sharers, it seems important for public access venues to accommodate both — with areas for individual, private computing and other areas for collaborative shared use.

These findings are amplified by those of another in-depth study (Non-Instrumental), which found that the first use of technology emerges through social interaction and collaboration. People did not start out exploring ICTs on their own, but were introduced and guided by a socially significant other. Initial use emerged in the context of a social interaction — such as in school, LAN houses, or other public access venues — generally by sitting together at the same or adjacent workstations. Such use plays a role in the initial and continuing use of computers in Brazilian cybercafés. For example, for almost 10% of respondents, their initial experience of computing was in the context of collaborative use in a cybercafé. Of these respondents, 40% initially started used using computers together with someone else, in the cybercafé.

This phenomenon has implications for the design of public access venues, which are often structured as solitary spaces, with physical barriers between users and each cubicle designed for one user. Thus, even when collaborative use of the facilities is not explicitly banned, the design of the space inhibits collaboration (as do certain policies, such as discouraging the sharing of purchased time). Yet, sharing and collaborative use often flourishes in spite of the lack of encouragement and even discouragement. Both studies suggest that public access venues should be understood in part as collaborative and interactive spaces; a productive approach to their design would include developing information and communication technologies and applications — as well as spatial layouts — that support collaboration and group work in public access venues.

Study 2. Infomediaries

The presence of staff members available to assist users with technical or information needs is an important characteristic of public access venues. The Infomediaries study defines an infomediary as “a person who combines a set of technological resources and coaching to meet users’ information needs and communication capabilities.” It explores how they perform their role and add value for public access venue users. These infomediaries, who can provide an interface between users and information resources, include librarians, telecenter staff, and cybercafé employees. There is great variation among venues: in the extent to which assisting users is part of their responsibilities; in the training they may have received in preparation for that task; and in the extent to which they are compensated or rewarded for providing such help.

The user survey showed that while only 7% of public access venue users cite getting help from venue staff as their main reason for using a public access venue, about 40% of users have some occasion to seek assistance from staff, with 16% doing so every time or most times they go to a venue (Table 7.5). That proportion varies widely across countries, reaching a high of 70% in Bangladesh and a low of 22% in Brazil. In all countries however, public access venue staff assistance represents a significant draw for users, who consider it a very important feature of public access facilities (see Chapter 4, Figure 4.10).

Table 7.5: Frequency of seeking assistance from venue staff (%)
All Bangladesh Brazil Chile Ghana Philippines
Every time 7 22 4 3 5 1
Most of the time 9 20 4 6 9 4
Sometimes 27 28 15 25 44 25
Rarely 24 15 33 23 14 34
Never 33 15 44 43 28 36
Total 100 100 100 100 100 100
Note: n=4,682. Data from user survey.

The survey also revealed a broad variety of user needs that drive them to seek staff help. While the most common are related to technical issues (usually for resolving problems using hardware or software), public access venue users also seek help related to other aspects of their personal, social, or political lives; 11% seek help with information searches on a range of topics including education, employment, and health (Table 7.6).

Table 7.6: Most common type of assistance requested from venue staff (%)
All Bangladesh Brazil Chile Ghana Philippines
Problems using computer hardware 16 18 17 18 8 19
Problems with internet connectivity 45 35 35 39 62 52
Problems using software 19 18 27 22 14 15
Searching for employment, business, or work information 6 15 5 3 1 2
Searching for health information 1 2 .2 .4 .6 .9
Searching for educational information 3 2 4 4 3 5
Searching for online government services .7 .4 .4 3 .1 .8
Searching for local or international news .3 0 0 1 0 .3
Searching for culture and language information .3 0 .2 .2 .6 .3
Performing communication activities, such as email 5 3 6 3 9 3
Producing online content, such as building websites .8 .1 2 .8 .1 2
Other 3 6 4 6 2 .5
Total 100 100 100 100 100 100
Note: n=3,140. Data from user survey.

This study, comparing Bangladesh, Chile, and Lithuania, incorporates infomediary interviews, user focus groups, library manager interviews, field visits, and ethnographic studies.[2] In order to better understand the value of infomediaries, this in-depth study examines three key aspects of their role. First, it investigates the extent to which technical skills and empathy are relevant and appreciated by different categories of users. It then explores the influence of the public access venue context. Do infomediaries behave differently across different types of venues? To what extent do environmental and contextual factors (such as venue type or venue location) encourage or discourage various infomediary behaviors? Finally, it examines the extent to which infomediaries are able to adapt venue services in response to user needs.

Infomediaries are especially important to first-time users

In all countries, users confirmed the need for assistance. A user’s decision to visit a public access venue is based on a combination of reasons, including services, price sensitivity, and convenience. The effectiveness of infomediation services is an important part of the bundle, but not the driving one. While the top reason cited in the user survey for going to public access venues is the need for equipment and internet access, first-time users often go to public access venues seeking assistance. This is especially true in Bangladesh, a country in the early stages of information technology diffusion. The ethnographic information collected in this study confirms that the help first-time users receive from infomediaries is key to overcoming their initial anxieties. Infomediaries play a critically important role, as they provide a human face for the information age by performing the complementary roles of facilitation, coaching, referral, and teaching. In their absence, marginalized populations (due to age, socioeconomic status, level of education/literacy, gender, disability, or caste) would face additional, and perhaps insurmountable, barriers.

The study’s evidence demonstrates that infomediaries contribute to developing the capacity and confidence among users to use and explore ICTs with increased independence. In all three countries, the empathetic competencies of the staff were particularly important for patrons with lower ICT skills. For novice users, empathy is more important than the infomediary’s ICT skills, while for advanced users ICT skills are most valued, though some forms of empathy are also expected. Field work in Chile indicated differences in the perspectives of users and infomediaries: infomediaries perceived that users mainly sought their technical skills, whereas users expressed a need for empathy.

The importance of empathy

While survey responses stress the importance of staff’s technical skills, this study’s qualitative data show that infomediary empathy is important for novice and advanced users. Empathy is difficult to pin down. Indeed, users may not recognize it explicitly but instead may value a particular service which was provided in an empathetic manner. Thus, in the user survey, empathy is likely underestimated as it is captured through the responses to a variety of questions about infomediary services. For example, empathy is probably an important component of helping users search for information or helping those with a physical disability. More broadly, infomediation itself, when well done, is often invisible: successful infomediation is subsumed within the service provided and may not be noticeable to the user, so that surveys may underestimate its impact.

Empathy is elusive

Empathy may best be described through examples of infomediary behaviors. It may include deciphering a user’s individual needs, having a friendly and informal communication style, being flexible about rule enforcement, or demonstrating caring, sympathy, politeness, respect, patience, and goodwill. Scanning the public access venue environment to determine appropriate interventions for various users is also an important aspect. The study describes an infomediary who negotiated with venue users to tolerate one user who was conducting a job interview through a poor Skype connection; that infomediary also stood by the back-up generator to be able to turn it on immediately in case of a black-out. Another infomediary demonstrated empathy by patiently explaining what is possible or impossible to do on the venue computers and why, coaching a user through the preliminary steps for filing a visa application. Yet another described offering advice and referral to specific resources for advanced users, so he could spend more time assisting novices. Sometimes, what is needed is a willingness to bend the rules and take risks, such as allowing a user to upload important files from a USB drive. Or it could mean showing flexibility to make adjustments to the venue’s environment, furniture layout, or schedule. The positive impact of such demonstrations of empathy underline the importance of a comprehensive approach to training infomediaries, to include attention to ways to minimize the intimidating effects of ICTs for novice users.

Empathy + skills = good service

The integration of empathy and skills is key to successful infomediation. An empathetic infomediary who doesn’t have the skills to address users’ technical needs would be as ineffective as one who has the skills but cannot understand the users’ needs. Service excellence is about offering an appropriate form of empathy, along with a suitable set of skills that are matched to users’ needs. For instance, leaving an advanced user to work on his or her own is an expression of empathy — especially if the infomediary has selected software or websites suitable for expert users to explore.

Empathy matters in all public access venue contexts

Contrary to commonly held assumptions, the study’s field work found little difference between for-profit and non-profit venues in the way they encourage empathy in their infomediaries. Empathetic service is evidently good business in all settings, and a “user-first” orientation is important to all types of public access venues. What is most valued are the skills and intuition that successful infomediaries apply in catering to different types of users. Infomediaries who are business savvy learn to cater to different users’ needs and adjust schedules, pricing, venue layout, and equipment in order to enhance user satisfaction, in for-profit and non-profit venues alike. What matters is not the type of public access venue but rather the extent of leeway allowed to infomediaries — as well as their own initiative — to experiment and make adjustments.

Venue layout matters to infomediation

The arrangement of furniture and the disposition of computers inside public access venues made a significant difference to the quality of infomediation. Open layouts allow coaching by infomediaries, whereas partitions make it harder, discouraging empathy. In Lithuanian public access venues, infomediaries showed initiative by decorating the venue and organizing a photo contest. These efforts proved important in making the users comfortable. The Sharing study also found that venue layout affected interaction among users and had impacts for the user experience. Designing and laying out public access venues in ways that foster interaction, both among users and with venue staff, is an important way for public access venues to create distinctive value for users.

Infomediary responsiveness matters

The study’s fieldwork identified many instances of infomediary services adapting in response to the perception of users’ needs. In Bangladesh, proactive infomediaries suggested innovative approaches, such as bundling visa services or providing specialized support to farmers (e.g., sending photos of pest problems to agricultural experts). The Bangladeshi Infoladies represent a notable adaptation: specially trained rural young women bicycle five to ten kilometers a day — carrying an ICT kit (netbook computer with webcam, digital camera, and mobile phone with internet connectivity and headphone) — to offer information services at the doorstep of rural households. The study found somewhat less evidence of flexibility in Chile, because of budget cutbacks and institutional rules. Nevertheless, staff showed ingenuity in coping with constraints, making whatever adjustments they could.

Often, infomediaries help to discover latent user needs, a contribution likely to be underestimated in surveys. Because they are the main point of contact with users and they understand the technology’s possibilities, infomediaries are in the best position to understand evolving user needs. Accordingly, the infomediary may be best placed to shape and implement organizational responsiveness.

The study indicates the value of granting infomediaries a degree of autonomy and flexibility, as an important way to enhance their impact. Public access venue management could introduce mechanisms that document and reward infomediaries who demonstrate a commitment to responsive service.

Hiring, training, and rewarding empathetic infomediaries

Because empathy is harder to identify, hire for, and teach than technical skills, most public access venues focus on technical skills in their human resources and organizational decisions. Empathy is seldom part of the infomediary’s job definition, as technical skills are. Infomediaries are tacitly expected to be helpful to users, but this is seldom spelled out as part of their professional duties. Similarly, infomediaries receive no specific training on empathy. The study found no evidence of formal mechanisms to encourage empathy by infomediaries or to reward empathetic behavior. The focus of infomediary training and job evaluation is on technical skills and quantitative measures.[3] The study found little evidence of tracking infomediary performance on the basis of quality of service. Moreover, while the study found countless examples of direct positive user feedback to infomediaries, it found no evidence of formal mechanisms to track or acknowledge users’ satisfaction levels.

These findings were similar for all types of public access venues, whether for-profit or non-profit. The policy challenge is to identify criteria for staff selection and to develop training curricula that enhance a range of skills and attitudes.

From infomediaries to infomediation

Infomediary characteristics often carry over to venue characteristics. Empathetic service creates an empathetic context, leading to effective user assistance. Effective infomediation — rather than effective (individual) infomediaries — seems to be a central factor in the institutionalization of effective practices, roles, and skills. The effectiveness of infomediation appears to be venue-neutral, in that the qualities of an effective infomediary will be less dependent on the type of venue and more on the ability of the venue to adapt to technological developments and changing user needs.

This study suggests that users, too, may be more concerned over time with a venue’s infomediation process rather than the individual infomediaries. In order for venues not to become overly dependent on the talents of one individual, it is important to foster systematically the qualities that lead to good infomediation, such as attentiveness to users’ needs, flexibility, and responsiveness.

Gaming, chatting, social networking: Do “non-serious” uses have impact?

When public agencies or foundations create public access venues, a primary rationale is usually to promote “serious” uses of ICTs: resources and applications that allow venue users to (for example) find economic, health, or educational information, write a report, create a CV, or simulate financial scenarios for a small business. Yet a visit to any public access venue in most parts of the world will show that users are often there to play computer games, chat with friends and family, or update their Facebook page. The user surveys indeed show that various forms of “non-serious” uses, from gaming to social networking, represent a dominant use of public access venues (Figure 7.3).

Figure 7.2: Use of domains, by venue
Figure 7.2: Use of domains, by venue

Note: Data from user survey

In a number of public access venues, such “non-serious” uses are discouraged or even forbidden. Such restrictions are more likely in libraries and telecenters than cybercafés. But are these non-serious uses of information technology necessarily pointless? This report suggests that they may have instrumental value for users, in two respects. First, users who are first attracted to using computers to play games or update their social network may go beyond that initial use to explore other ICT activities. Second, even the less serious uses of ICTs also generate familiarity with a range of aspects of information technology, promoting computer skills and possibly resulting in important impacts.

The next two in-depth studies examine such impacts in detail. The first study explores the extent to which “non-instrumental” computer use leads to the development of generic computer skills that are directly linked to employability. It finds little difference between the skills progress of “gamers” and “workers”: the generic computer skills they acquire are largely identical and depend primarily on the extent of computer use. The second study examines communication and connectedness within families who are geographically separated. It finds that the ability to communicate through chat, video conferencing, or social networking matters a great deal for family cohesion. However, public access is often a poor substitute for private access in these areas. Together, these two studies argue that “non-serious” computer uses can have important positive impacts that need to be taken into account in setting public access venue policies.

Study 3. Non-instrumental computer use

The user survey found that, when asked whether use of public access computers for “non-serious” activities has improved their overall ICT skills, users consistently report positive impact (see Chapter 5, Figure 5.32). The Non-Instrumental study found detailed evidence of the usefulness of such “playful” computer activities as social networking and gaming, in public access venues. The study builds on findings from the “serious games” and “games and learning” literature.

Parsing out non-instrumental uses

There is no generally accepted agreement on what constitutes instrumental vs. non-instrumental computer use. The prevalent approach public access venues take to distinguish between instrumental and non-instrumental ICT uses is based primarily on what software application is involved. The Global Impact Study found similar kinds of distinctions in all countries: word processing and spreadsheets are good (to be encouraged), while games and internet chat are bad (to be discouraged or prohibited). In practice, the lines are more blurred, as almost any application can be used for either instrumental or non-instrumental purposes. For example, email is used for both instrumental purposes (messages related to work or school) and non-instrumental purposes (communicating with friends and family). Instead of the standard dichotomy, this study asked users to describe their purpose as instrumental or non-instrumental or both, for each activity they engaged in from a list of specific activities. The results were used to define an “instrumentality index” for applications based on user motivations, as well as a classification of users according to the purpose of their activities.

Instrumentality index

The study asked respondents whether they engaged in each of 14 common computer-based activities, and whether their use was for work/school or for personal use/fun. The instrumentality index was created based on the percentage of respondents responding “work or school” for a specific activity, relative to the percentage responding “personal use or fun.” (Note that respondents were allowed to select both answers.) Thus, scores greater than one indicate activities that are done more often for instrumental purposes, while scores less than one indicate activities that are done more for non-instrumental purposes. The study found that three activities are most clearly instrumental: create computer presentations, create or use spreadsheets, and create documents with a word processor (in decreasing order of instrumentality). Another group scored around 1, indicating that they are equally used for instrumental and non-instrumental purposes: searching for Information online, using email, or creating web content. Playing computer games and using social networks fell clearly in the non-instrumental end of the scale.

Figure 7.3: Instrumentality index for various computer activities, based on users’ purpose
Figure 7.3: Instrumentality index for various computer activities, based on users’ purpose

Some activities are closely matched to specific computer applications. For example, since “create documents with a word processor” shows an instrumentality index of 1.90, “word processor application” is likely to be an instrumental application. Interestingly, however, the study found that all activities had at least 6% of users for whom it was instrumental in purpose (including “play computer games”), as well as at least 22% for whom it was non-instrumental (including “create computer presentations”).

The instrumentality index will vary depending on the population surveyed. A particular activity’s index is true for that population (or other populations with similar characteristics), and does not hold as an absolute measure of instrumentality. For example, while “using social network sites” was non-instrumental for the surveyed LAN house users, other populations may use social networking as an instrumental part of their professional network development. Nevertheless, the three activities ranked as primarily instrumental (create computer presentations, create or use spreadsheets, create documents with a word processor) match three commonly accepted “serious” office applications (presentation, spreadsheet, word-processor); they are typically among the activities that public access programs and policies seek to promote as “productive.” They also correspond to the skills employers look for in prospective employees. The study included computer-based exercises that focused on tasks related to two of these clearly instrumental activities, spreadsheets and word processing.

User purposes are not static

A user’s purpose can change over time. Participants varied in both how they were introduced to technology and how they continue to use technology. Fully 62% of participants indicated that they use the internet for more than just games. Frequently mentioned activities were: research for school and for work, email and social networking, and chatting online. Although participants started using technology for certain reasons, many expanded their skills for new purposes. One participant explained that “schoolwork ended up demanding [that I use computers] and I began to learn more games.” Inversely, another participant was first interested in technology “for gaming, but today it is more for studies.” Another participant blurred the lines between instrumental and non-instrumental use, explaining that she simultaneously “learned to install games, get on the internet, and type.” The diversity of experiences and the different means of progressing to different uses indicate that users in Brazilian LAN houses have an expanding relationship with technology. They are initially exposed to it for a variety of reasons, and they gradually expand their knowledge to engage in many different uses. The synergy between serious and playful uses for many respondents underlines the value of policies that enable both.

Casuals, Players, Workers, and Power Users

Based on the profile they provided of their own use, and the relative weight of instrumental versus non-instrumental usage, users were characterized by the number of instrumental activities they cited (e.g., using email for work or school) and the number of non-instrumental activities (e.g., emailing friends or family). Figure 7.4 charts the study’s population along these two axes, with the size of each circle representing the number of respondents with a specific mix and number of instrumental and non-instrumental activities. Respondents were then categorized as Casual Users, Players, Workers, or Power Users, based on their position below or above the mean in each axis dimension. Casual Users were found to engage in the fewest activities overall; Players engaged mostly in non-instrumental activities, Workers mostly instrumental activities, and Power Users engaged in many activities of both kinds.

Figure 7.4: Typology of users based on mix of instrumental and non-instrumental activities
Figure 7.4: Typology of users based on mix of instrumental and non-instrumental activities

Note: The x and y axes represent the mean number of each kind of computer activity (instrumental and non-instrumental).

Data from Non-Instrumental Uses study.

Non-instrumental users fit the typical target of public access programs

Overall, non-instrumental activities are particularly prevalent among younger, lower-educated, less experienced users, who are also less likely to have home access. These users are among the main targets of many public access programs. Based on the patterns of change shown in the study’s observations, these users will likely increase their instrumental use and improve their instrumental ICT skills.

The characteristics of the four groups of users are consistent with what most observers would expect. Casuals and Players tended to be younger, while Workers and Power Users tended to be older. Players tended to have a lower education level than Workers. Casual Users have the least computer experience (6.6 years), followed by Players (8.4 years), Workers (10.8 years), and Power Users (11.8 years). Overall, 85% of users had a computer at home and 70% had access to the internet, with Casuals ranking lowest and Power Users highest. The minority of users who lacked home access to both internet and computer fell into the Casual User group and were found to engage only in non-instrumental activity.

However, in several important characteristics, there are surprises. Players and Workers had similar rates of home computer and home internet access. And, perhaps most notable, there were no significant gender differences among the four groups (the overall population included one-third females, two-thirds males).

Informal learning is more prevalent than formal training

Many more respondents reported learning informally, from friends and family, than through formal training. The top three instrumental activities (presentation, spreadsheets, and word processing) are the ones for which respondents reported the most formal training (about one-third of respondents). By contrast, informal learning is prevalent for multimedia use, music, and video, as well as social networking (about three quarters of respondents). Players were most likely to report informal and self-training, workers most likely to report formal training. This suggests that public access venues could offer options that include training and a co-presence environment that facilitates informal training The Infomediaries study confirms this finding, observing that some of the best training programs in Chile have developed such choice strategies.

The study’s qualitative findings show that most Brazilians do not turn to formal education as a means for gaining computer knowledge and skills. Instead, many pick up this knowledge from other resources, including friends, neighbors, family, and, most importantly, in the LAN houses. The Sharing study similarly shows that informal learning is prevalent in Ghanaian cybercafés. While individuals indicate an eagerness to gain new skills, many are more interested in learning through technology exploration and engagement within their social network, rather than learning for its own sake.

In line with the findings of the user survey, this study found that users are more likely to share their skills with friends than strangers and are quite unlikely to share within formal workshops. It found that Power Users were the most likely to share, followed by players, then by Workers and Casual users.

Social networks are thus paramount to transferring computer knowledge. First, informal learning from friends was the most prevalent mode of training, across all activities. Second, those participants who shared their expertise with friends tended to share that expertise across a whole range of activities and were, perhaps as a result, often more advanced users. Together, these findings underscore the importance of informal social learning, especially considering the finding that those who share their expertise are willing to do so in both instrumental and non-instrumental activities. Players as a group benefit the most from informal learning environments. They are the most likely to learn computer skills informally, the second most likely to share their expertise with friends (after Power Users), and the most likely to share their expertise with strangers. For members of this group, a public access venue that provides a sociable computing environment is more conducive to the development of computer skills.

Similar findings emerged in the study of Ghanaian cybercafés. Findings from these two different contexts, Brazil and Ghana, confirm this study’s hypothesis: in some cases, public access venues are much more than an inferior substitute for private access. Public access venues can provide alternative learning paths for younger, poorer, and less educated users, who tend to develop their skills most readily through informal and play-oriented collaborative learning with their peers.

Non-instrumental use builds instrumental computer skills, thus boosting employability

One of this study’s key findings concerns the impact of computer use practices on computer skills. In order to evaluate the skills of various categories of users, the study tested a sample of LAN-house users, asking them to perform 16 tasks primarily associated with instrumental activities: 9 word processing tasks, 3 spreadsheet tasks, 2 web search tasks, and 2 email tasks. These tasks were chosen to correspond to what local employers would typically expect for entry-level office jobs, to provide a rough indicator of employability.

Overall, performance on the various tasks correlated with group categories. Overall, Casual Users were most likely to fail at the tasks, while Power Users were more likely to succeed. Interestingly, there was no significant difference between Players and Workers: the two groups performed similarly on most of the tasks. The study further found that users who engaged in a greater number of non-instrumental activities performed better on the test. This was true both of users who engaged in a variety of activities and of those who engaged in only non-instrumental activities. Similarly, the study found that users who engaged exclusively in non-instrumental activities at a high level performed at least as well as those who had a high level of instrumental engagement. In short, non-instrumental computer use and instrumental computer use had similarly positive impacts on instrumental skills development.

The study further examined whether users’ pattern of engagement for instrumental or non-instrumental reasons made a difference to their success on the test. It found that success on the test varied depending on their reasons for engaging in these activities. Engagement for non-instrumental reasons was associated with lower rates of success than engagement for instrumental reasons. Importantly, users who engaged in these activities for both instrumental and non-instrumental reasons tended to perform best: for a given activity, adding non-instrumental use (i.e., play) was associated with greater skill levels. This suggests that banning or limiting non-instrumental activities may be counter-productive, in terms of skills impact.

Many public access venues place greater value on activities like word processing (to prepare a job application) or spreadsheets (for budgeting), and attach little or no value to gaming or social networking. These choices reflect an understanding of what constitutes appropriate use of technology — and of public monies. This study shows that this is in fact not the most effective approach to raising the skills of broad segments of the public access venue user population, particularly the most marginalized groups. The users of Brazilian LAN-houses who engage mainly in non-instrumental activities in fact develop useful, employable computer skills in equivalent ways to users who favor instrumental activities. Moreover, for all users, engagement in non-instrumental activities enhanced their instrumental computer skills. The most important factor was the variety of activities users engage in, not their formal training, and not whether they perform instrumental or non-instrumental activities.

Public access venues that allow community members to engage frequently with computers in a range of activities are most likely to provide the opportunity for people to gain the skills commonly associated with employability. Policies that restrict activities such as gaming or social networking — especially common practices when facilities are busy — may be limiting skill acquisition that translates to instrumental use. Loosening these restrictions in public access venues like telecenters and libraries — where policies tend to be stricter than in LAN houses and cybercafés — can potentially facilitate skill acquisition by a broader range of users. The Infomediaries study found that public access venues in Chile and Lithuania which allowed gaming would also schedule quiet periods to accommodate other users (older patrons in particular).

Study 4. Connectedness of children with migrant parents

Much like gaming and social networking, interpersonal communication activities (chat, Skype voice or video calls, instant messaging) are often limited or banned in libraries and telecenters. Yet according to the user survey, the activity with the greatest overall frequency of use, as well as the highest percentage of perceived impact reports, is communicating with family and friends.

The Interpersonal study explores the impact of interpersonal communication activities in public access venues on family connectedness among Filipino families, focusing on the children left behind by overseas Filipino workers. This is an important study site because of the large population concerned: one-tenth of the Filipino population works abroad, and a large number of Filipino families are geographically separated. Many rely on the internet and on public access venues for family communication.

The study uses three classic indicators of connectedness: children’s knowledge of their parents’ lives overseas; the parents’ knowledge about their children lives at home; and the parents’ ability to monitor their children’s activities and their efforts to know more about them. Findings draw from a survey of 308 adolescent and young adult children left behind (158 in an urban setting and 150 in a rural community) to measure their perceptions of these three aspects, as well as focus group discussions with parents who had lived abroad. Interviews with 15 cybercafé managers (seven urban and eight rural) complement the survey with qualitative insights.

Internet use increases family connectedness

All but 8% of youth respondents used the internet, and almost half had no home access and relied exclusively on cybercafés. Moreover, two-thirds of those with home access also used public access. Overall, 70% of the surveyed youth used the internet to communicate with their parents abroad. The families using internet for communication were significantly better connected than the families of overseas Filipino workers whose children did not use the internet to communicate with their parents: children knew more about their parents’ lives overseas, felt their parents knew more about their lives at home, and believed their parents made greater efforts to know more about them. The study examined the impact of diverse communication applications: real-time chat, messaging, social networking (including Facebook), email, and video-chat.

All applications except video-chat were found to significantly improve youth knowledge of their parents.

Only chat and messaging significantly improved their perception of parental knowledge.

All applications except social networking and video-chat significantly improved their perception of their parents’ efforts to know more about their lives and to exert some control over their activities.

The qualitative input from focus group discussions provided insights into possible reasons behind the variations. When seeking knowledge about their parents’ lives, youth are in control and they avail themselves of a broad range of communication tools. By contrast, they often find that the informality and real-time character of chat and messaging make it easier to convey what it going on in their lives to their parents abroad, as compared to email or Facebook. Several, however, reported reluctance to discuss difficult topics — trouble at school, personal problems — through real-time applications, preferring the time for reflection afforded by asynchronous communication. Facebook monitoring is also an important way for parents to know about their child’s life, often followed up with chats or voice conversations to provide background details. Interestingly, video-chat showed no significant impact for any of the three indicators. Those who used it reported conflicted feelings: while it was nice to see distant family members in their environment, it could also provide a painful reminder of their physical separation. It also required a somewhat awkward setup in public access venues.

Private access has greatest impact on connectedness

While internet use increases family connectedness, the kind of internet access makes a significant difference to the magnitude of impact. Across all three indicators, the study found the smallest impact for youth who used the internet only in public access venues. The greatest impact was reported by youth who used the internet only at home. Surprisingly, for those who used the internet both at home and in public access venues, impact levels fell somewhere in between. The differences between use at home or at public access venues was much more pronounced for rural youth, and virtually disappeared in the urban context (as discussed below).

The focus group conversations helped understand this apparent paradox. Youth who only used computers at home did so by choice, since they could go to public access venues if they chose to. In their case, home access proved satisfactory for the task at hand. By contrast, when youth with home access chose to go to a public access venue, they did so because their home access was less than ideal: their home computer might be unavailable because other family members are using it, or they might be seeking privacy away from family members. Whatever the reason, they missed out on important benefits from home use for family connectedness. Some youth complained about the public access venues’ noisy environment. Parents in particular appreciated the convenience of their child’s home use to enable impromptu, unscheduled conversations “whenever they are on Facebook,” or to deal more easily with the time difference between their host and home countries. By contrast, families needed to coordinate schedules when they wanted to interact in real-time from a public access venue.

This impact ranking (home only > home + public > public only) holds true to a significant degree for almost all interpersonal ICTs in the survey: Facebook, text chat, voice chat, video-chat, and internet in general. The exception was email, where the result was not statistically significant. The superiority of home access to maintain family connectedness was a motivation for many overseas Filipino workers to purchase home computers. Many overseas parents also cited the importance of family connectedness as a key motivation to learn about the internet.

Internet use has greater impact on family connectedness in urban than rural areas

The study found that the positive impacts on family connectedness were much greater for urban than for rural respondents. Especially for rural users of cybercafés who lack home computers or other public access, there was no significant impact on any of the three indicators of connectedness.

Conversations with youth explained this by the far greater convenience of cybercafés in urban than in rural areas. Indeed, cybercafés were densely distributed within the urban neighborhood of the study, even more than expected: the field researchers found many public access computers that were not on their list of known cybercafés in the neighborhood. As a result, cybercafés almost match the convenience of home computers in urban settings — located within easy walking distance from respondents’ homes, sometimes even within a few feet of their doorstep. For rural users, by contrast, getting to the cybercafé involves travel time and costs, creating significant hurdles. These are all the more important for the synchronous communication activities that are key to family connectedness, since they make coordination all the more difficult. One rural youth said that, between travel time and time-zone difference, he and his mother were barely able to talk once a week.

In fact, within the urban setting, there was no significant difference in impact among the three internet access modes (home only, public access venue only, home and public combined). By contrast, in the rural setting, the “home only > home + public > public only” ranking holds true both for children’s knowledge of parents and for perception of parental knowledge. (The results for parental effort to know/monitor children’s life were not significant.)

Cybercafé-only users

Even though public access was less effective than private access for maintaining family connectedness, it is still critical for those youth who do not have an alternative. For cybercafé-only youth users, the study found, again, important differences between urban and rural settings. In urban cybercafés, youth use of text chat, voice chat or email to communicate with their overseas parent had a significant impact on knowledge of their parent, while only voice chat proved to have significant impact on their perception of parental knowledge, and none showed significant impact on perceived parental effort to know their child. In rural cybercafés by contrast, there was no significant impact on any of the three indicators of connectedness.

Again, the qualitative findings provide some confirmation that (1) synchronous interaction is most impactful and that (2) using synchronous applications is much easier in urban settings, where cybercafés are easily accessible. Urban parents described how they use cell phones, either through texting or calling, to tell their child to go to the nearby cybercafé, when they are available to chat with them.

Public/Private use

Youth who have both private and public access have developed sophisticated practices combining the two, similar to those observed among South African youth (Mobile study). Which they prefer — home computer, mobile phone, or public access computer — depends on timing, activity, and context. This echoes the findings from the user survey and supports the framework hypothesis, that private use is not always superior to public use and that the two can be complementary depending on the user’s purpose.

The youth surveyed reported preferring public access venues when they seek better equipment or faster connections, as well as when they want to be together with friends. However, within the context of family communication, many subtle factors come into play. Privacy is an important consideration, but this cuts both ways: public access venues are more private when youth prefer not to be overheard by siblings or the parent they live with, but home computers at times give them privacy from noisy cybercafés. Private mobile phones are often used to coordinate real-time chats with parents abroad, which then take place in cybercafés. The choice of application is affected by similarly complex preferences. Asynchronous text messages can be better than real-time chat or video conference when confessing some misbehavior, giving the overseas parent time to digest the news. In general, however, real-time interaction is preferred for informal impromptu communication. Application preferences can in turn affect the choice between a private or public setting.

Mobile phone interaction has greater impact than internet on family connectedness

To further explore the importance of frequent, real-time, impromptu interaction, the study compared frequency of mobile phone and internet use. The impact of frequent mobile phone use on the youths’ knowledge of their parents appears to be much greater (and at a higher significance level) than internet use, both in urban and rural settings. Text chat and voice chat were the most important internet applications in urban settings, though neither showed significant impact in rural settings. For the other two indicators of connectedness (parental knowledge of child, and parental effort to know their child), the only communication mode showing significant impact was frequent mobile phone use.

Focus group discussions confirm that frequent mobile phone interaction constitute the most direct way to maintain family relationships, because of the convenience, privacy, and spontaneous conversations they allow. However, frequent mobile phone use remains an expensive option, and access to the internet (via computers) continues to be an important mode of communication for children of overseas Filipino workers.

The importance of private access, whether home access or mobile phone access, to maintain family connectedness in this study contrasts with users’ preferences as identified in the Non-Instrumental and Sharing studies, favoring shared, sociable public access. This further highlights the complementarity of public and private access. Depending on circumstances and purposes, users may prefer one or the other, or they may use each to pursue distinct benefits. Again, the in-depth studies confirm the framing hypothesis that public access is not simply a temporary substitute for private access. Both play important roles in the user’s communication toolkit.

Study 5. Public access, private mobile

Mobile phones are now broadly available throughout the developing world, prompting the question whether they might eventually obviate the need for public access venues. When everyone has a private information device in their pocket, is there still a need to provide public access to ICTs? The broad user survey confirmed that most public access venue users (96% overall) have access to a mobile phone within their household. For most respondents, using a mobile phone is no longer a novelty; in fact, a large majority of public access users (88% overall) report using a mobile phone daily or almost daily. While there are minor variations between countries, the quasi-universal availability and use of mobile phones by public access venue users is remarkably consistent across the countries in the study (Tables 7.7 to 7.10).

Table 7.7: Public access users: mobile phone at home (%)
All Bangladesh Brazil Chile Ghana Philippines
No 4 4 5 5 2 4
Yes 96 96 95 95 98 96
Total 100 100 100 100 100 100
Note: n=4,977. Data from user survey.
Table 7.8: Public access users: first use of mobile phone (%)
All Bangladesh Brazil Chile Ghana Philippines
6 months ago or less 3 3 2 2 3 4
7-11 months ago 2 3 1 .2 2 3
1-2 years ago 9 16 7 4 10 10
3-5 years ago 23 28 20 20 21 22
Over 5 years ago 61 48 69 73 59 58
Never used 2 2 1 1 5 2
Total 100 100 100 100 100 100
Note: n=4,993. Data from user survey.

Internet use on mobile phones is far less common. Mobile internet access remains a luxury (albeit increasingly common) in the developing world: 58% of public access venue users report they have never used the internet on a mobile phone. Only 16% overall say that using mobile internet is an everyday experience. However, there are substantial international variations. In Chile, 71% report never having used mobile internet, while in Ghana, almost the same proportion (73%) has used the mobile internet, and 56% say that this is a daily or weekly practice.[4]

Table 7.9 Public access users: frequency of mobile phone use (%)
All Bangladesh Brazil Chile Ghana Philippines
Daily or Almost Daily 88 91 83 88 91 87
At Least Once a Week 7 5 13 8 3 7
At Least Once a Month 2 2 2 2 2 2
A Few Times a Year .5 .3 .5 .5 .4 .8
Never 3 2 2 2 4 4
Total 100 100 100 100 100 100
Note: n=4,955. Data from user survey.
Table 7.10: Public access users: frequency of accessing internet on a mobile phone (%)
All Bangladesh Brazil Chile Ghana Philippines
Daily or Almost Daily 16 15 11 5 36 13
At Least Once a Week 13 10 10 6 20 15
At Least Once a Month 6 5 3 7 8 6
A Few Times a Year 7 3 10 11 9 6
Never 58 67 66 71 27 60
Total 100 100 100 100 100 100
Note: n=4,778. Data from user survey.

The Mobile study explores mobile internet use in South Africa, focusing on older teenagers who use public access venues in low-income neighborhoods of Cape Town. It is based on a combination of approaches: semi-structured interviews with 36 public access venue operators; detailed interviews and task analyses with 53 teenage users in 6 public access venues, including neighborhood libraries, larger central libraries, and cybercafés; and a closed-end survey with 280 public access venue users in Cape Town.

The implications of public access venue use for this particular demographic are especially important, as older teens confront a range of information-related challenges associated with the transition between school and either tertiary studies or a daunting job market. Only one in eight South Africans between 18 and 25 years of age succeeds in finding formal employment.

South Africa has 49 million people — and over 50 million mobile subscriptions. As a relatively early adopter of “mobile-centric” internet use, South Africa is a good setting to explore the role of public access in an increasingly mobile age. Urban South Africa is among the few places where mobile internet use is almost as common as basic mobile phone access even for resource-constrained users. Driven by MXit and more recently by Facebook, mobile internet use in urban South Africa is common on feature phones, even among the poor.

While South Africa is on the leading edge of mobile-centric internet use, mobile centric does not necessarily mean mobile-only. The study finds that overall, mobile phones and public access venue computers do not substitute for one another: each is used for a distinct set of activities and information behaviors, associated with different social, academic, or professional practices. The public access users interviewed had developed elaborate, fine-grained practices combining public access computers and mobile phones, taking maximum advantage of their complementary aspects. Public access venues provided them unique and even indispensable services, for which the mobile internet is no substitute. The study did not find widespread evidence of synergies between mobile and public computer use. There may be a significant potential for greater integration in the use of these two channels of communication, through adjustments in public access venues’ rules and services.

Public access venues and mobiles are complements, not substitutes

Almost all 280 public access venue users surveyed own a cell phone (90% of teens and 95% of adults), and almost all of them used it to access the internet in some form. However, while 82% of adults interviewed had brought their mobile to the public access venue, only 56% of teens did so. They were concerned about theft, or they had come to the venue straight from school, where mobile phones are generally banned. Only about a third (37% of adults and 32% of youth) had purchased data bundles; the majority had more expensive forms of data access, that they made use of only infrequently.

Respondents described very different uses for mobile phones and public access venue computers. They reported using some applications only on one platform: word processing is always used on a computer; MXit (a Java-based GPRS “internet-lite” chat application, developed in South Africa) is almost always used on a phone rather than on a desktop MXit client. Other applications are “cross-platforms,” such as Facebook and Google search. Even there, practices varied depending on the platform, favoring mobile phones for quick focused Google searches and computers for more in-depth research sessions. This division reflects the fact that public access computers and private mobile phones offer very different affordances. Among low-income users, free use (as in a library) supports the more resource-intensive activities that require storage space, time, bandwidth, as well as stable media production. Paid use, via mobile phone, supports time-sensitive activities as well as various forms of inter-personal communication and low-bandwidth media use.

In response to these differences, teenage users have developed complex, fine-grained practices which help them to negotiate the respective strengths and weaknesses of public access and private mobiles. These include practices that help to minimize costs and maximize convenience, displaying a keen sense of which affordances or use settings will be more productive to reach given goals.

These practices respond to a broad range of factors, including:

The respective costs of various access modes:

For teens, the public library often served as a fallback when cash or airtime had run out. One user explained that she alternated between computer and mobile internet, depending on whether she had airtime: “I use a computer when I do not have airtime and I use cell phone when I have airtime.”

The capabilities of each platform:

Youth realize that mobile phones are not great for downloading complex pages needed for homework or document production. Web pages, often designed for computers and broadband, download painfully slowly on a phone. In addition, the need to multitask, print, or display large images requires the use of a computer rather than mobile internet access.

The purpose of the activity — for school or for social networking:

Schoolwork is mostly done on computers. Mobile phones are seldom used directly for schoolwork, except as a backchannel to discuss homework with classmates. MXit is used almost exclusively on mobile phones for social networking and constant contact with peers, associated with instant messaging.

The granularity of communication activities:

A quick search or message is normally done on phones for convenience, or to avoid paying for hourly public access. The phone allows micro-access and micro-coordination activities.

Overall, the study finds that the respective constraints and possibilities of public access and mobile access shape distinct information practices and lead to different information literacies. Public access fosters interests and digital literacies associated with large-format document production and use of hyperlinked media, which involve more extensive computer and internet use and entail significant expenditure (using paid access). By contrast, mobile internet access supports everyday social literacies and messaging (which require responsiveness and frequent use), as well as off-line media use. Some respondents also describe how libraries’ pressured environment, allowing each user only 15 minutes of computer time during busy periods, leads to quick-turnaround search-copy-paste-print routines. In other cases, taking longer periods at the computer (as at the internet cafés) or, alternatively, the discipline of regular visits to the library, well before project deadlines, allows more sustained productivity: the collection and editing of online information; the development of visual designs, using word processor or another program; and integration with handwritten and photocopied material.

Public access venues provide indispensable resources to many users, for whom the mobile “internet in their pocket” is not a viable substitute. Public access venues offer safe, quiet spaces with low-cost or free (subsidized) airtime as well as large screens. The school-related tasks that teens are assigned are significantly easier to complete at the computer. One respondent observed, “All the work at school requires you to get information here at the library.” The study finds that for these youth, connected libraries are used primarily for “serious” uses and schoolwork.

The critical importance of public access venues for accomplishing homework assignments may reflect conditions specific to South Africa: researchers noted a severe mismatch between the South African school curriculum, which requires project-based learning, and the limited availability of learning resources in state schools, such as computers, books, and libraries. Library and web resources are needed for schoolwork. Home, moreover, is often not a quiet or convenient place to do homework. In the study’s survey question about the importance of various public access venue attributes, “safe/quiet/convenient place” was cited most often, after “affordability.” This factor was mentioned much more frequently than “cquipment quality,” “connection reliability,” or “my friends are there.” This finding is echoed by public access venue operators, who cite as a major benefit of their venue the ability to help users with homework, job search and employability. It also confirms findings from the Infomediaries study, which found that users who had personal access to a mobile phone still sought infomediation services in public access venues.

When asked which they would use, for a series of individual tasks, if forced to choose between public access computers and private mobile, respondents confirmed this non-substitutability. They preferred computers for instrumental activities and mobile phones for social and entertainment purposes. Mostly, they preferred to use both devices, in concert. When pushed further and asked which they would choose if they could only keep one of them for a month, slightly more than half picked the mobile phone and slightly less than half picked the public access venue computer. Even when it was stipulated that the phone airtime would be free, there was little change, suggesting that cost is not as important a factor as the different affordances. In general, respondents were very reluctant to choose, implying that co-present and complementary use of both public access venue computers and private mobile is very important to them.

As long as access to computers and reliable home internet remains scarce, the public access venue will provide value to resource-constrained teenagers that cannot be replaced by mobile phone access alone. Even with wider home access, public access venues may continue to have unique value, as providers of safe and quiet workspaces as well as needed technical assistance. When public access venues help teens link to homework resources and to networks of interest, they may help shape dispositions toward learning and information activities that are linked to academic success.

mobile phones can enhance the impact of public access venues

Public access operators can improve venue rules and skills training to encourage the complementary use of the mobile internet. The chief factor preventing more complementary use of mobile internet and shared access computers is the set of restrictions imposed in the typical venue. Overall, cybercafés and libraries have dramatically different approaches to rules about mobile phones. Nine of the 11 cybercafés interviewed had no rules in place about mobile phone use. Cybercafés in fact tend to welcome users’ phones, providing help with application or email set-up (while charging a small fee for the help) and in many cases allowing users to connect their phone to a computer via USB cable or Bluetooth.

By contrast, six of the libraries completely banned mobile phones, eight required the phones to be silent, and four specified that phones were not to be connected to the computers. These restrictions are designed partly to avoid noise and distractions, but also to prevent virus infection. Additionally, the dominance of MXit among mobile uses leads libraries and telecenters to ban them as frivolous distractions.

The Non-Instrumental study asked users about their interest in having public access venues provide mobile-related services and found that these would generally be well-received (Figure 7.5). The practices of cybercafés suggest some ways in which libraries and telecenters could try to leverage synergies between public computers and private phones. Public access venues could provide valuable mobile-related services to users by introducing a combination of staff training, updated rules (to accommodate both the need for quiet and the need for data), improved antivirus software, a wi-fi connection (cost permitting), and perhaps some cabling and charging stations. Even with limited resources, public access venues could orient to the mobile internet in a new way. A relatively modest investment in materials, time, and training would enable public access venue owners and frontline staff to accommodate mobile internet use as a complement to computer-based access.

Figure 7.5: How could public access venues foster synergies between PC and mobile phone use?
Figure 7.5: How could public access venues foster synergies between PC and mobile phone use?

Public or private: what is best?

Several of the in-depth studies found that a significant number of users have alternative means of ICT access besides public access venues, including home computers and internet connections and private mobile devices. Of the Non-Instrumental study respondents, 65% had home computers and 50% had internet access at home. Two-thirds of the Interpersonal study respondents had home access. The Mobile study found that 86% of venue users reported having accessed the internet on a mobile phone.

The in-depth studies thus confirm a key finding from the user survey: many public access venue users make use of public access venues for reasons other than lack of alternative access. The broad user survey identified the main reasons for such a choice, and the in-depth studies provide important evidence and narratives that complement these general findings.

The in-depth studies find that there is no fixed hierarchy of choice between private and public access. Either channel might be preferable for certain applications or activities or at specific times, or the two may be used in combination. Patterns of public and private access are far from exclusive. All five in-depth studies find ample evidence that users, particularly youth, have developed sophisticated, fine-grained practices as a kind of portfolio of private and public access, combining home computers, friends’ or relatives’ computers, mobile phones, and public access.

In many cases, the motivation for going to a public access venue is to access technically superior equipment or equipment that is not cost-effective to own (e.g., scanners, color printers). Getting help from venue staff is also important, including (as found in the Infomediaries study) when users may not wish to learn how to perform a specialized task they will seldom need to perform.

Finally, a critically important reason why users at times prefer public access venues is the search for socialization and learning around ICTs. Several in-depth studies suggest that these aspects are often connected: public access venue users want to be with other users in order to learn from one another. The Sharing study demonstrates that for a significant number of users, the primary motivation for using public access venues is being with others and sharing computers. The Non-Instrumental study demonstrates that social use and collaborative learning in public access venues is an effective way to promote computer skills and learning, particularly among young, poor, or less-educated users. The Mobile study shows that social connections through mobile devices, especially in connection with public access venue computer use, are important to the completion of schoolwork and to academic success.

Because this apparent social motivation is seldom explicitly acknowledged, few public access venues fully take it into account either in designing their physical environment or in organizing their service provision. The in-depth studies suggest that designing public access venues in a way that can accommodate collaborative use has important potential for impact.

Do venue rules matter to impact?

Public access venues implement a variety of restrictions on their users’ activities, including limits on content which can be viewed or downloaded and bans on activities such as gaming, music listening, or social networking. These restricted activities may be viewed as detrimental to other venue users or to the venue’s mission, or potentially damaging to equipment. Table 7.11 shows that, according to the venue survey, libraries impose the most restrictions, in all categories. Cybercafés impose greater limits than telecenters on content viewing (including pornography and offensive content), but are more permissive on gaming and social networking applications.

Table 7.11: Restrictive rules in public access venues (%)
All Libraries Cybercafés Telecenters Other
Viewing pornography 66 93 66 48 81
Use filters to block offensive content 53 74 50 47 66
Downloading software 23 57 19 20 40
Downloading music/video 18 50 13 15 35
Gaming 12 33 8 16 19
Viewing other types of content 7 13 6 5 5
Other activities 6 8 7 1 7
Listening to music/video 6 19 3 8 11
Chatting using VOIP and/or IM 5 17 2 9 7
Using social networking applications 4 18 1 5 9
Note: n=1,235. Data from user survey.

Venue administrators have differing opinions about the effect these restrictions have on user visits. Librarians tend to think their restrictions are attractive to users, as do cybercafé operators (to a lesser extent). Telecenters’ operators believe that the restrictions discourage users from coming to their venue. Overall, however, 50% of venue administrators said that the restrictions have no impact on visitors, an opinion more prevalent among telecenter and cybercafé staff than library staff (Table 7.12).

Table 7.12: Venue operators’ views on the effect of restrictions (%)
All Libraries Cybercafés Telecenters Other
Attracts users 30 43 31 14 39
Discourages users 20 17 20 27 7
No Impact 50 40 49 59 54
Total 100 100 100 100 100
Note: n=946. Data from user survey.

The in-depth studies identified some additional restrictions on user activities. The Infomediaries Study found that some Lithuanian public access venues have rules prohibiting collective use of computers to prevent sharing, and noted that young users object to them. The Mobile study highlighted limits imposed on the use of mobile phones in libraries. The in-depth studies also identified a category of practical constraints, such as limited hours of operations, or time limits on use of a work station when the venue was busy.

The benefits public access venues ostensibly receive from such restrictions must be weighed against their significant downsides. The implications of various restrictions were found in many areas:

  • The Non-Instrumental Use study suggests that restrictions on non-instrumental use (particularly gaming and social networking) could negatively impact computer skills acquisition and learning.
  • The Mobile study shows that use of mobile phones in public access venues, in tandem with computer use, has the potential to enhance users’ ICT productivity and learning.
  • The Infomediaries study notes that limitations on downloading programs or files can in some cases restrict users’ ability to create content.
  • Restrictions often shape practices: the 15-minute limit on computer use in busy South African libraries fosters quick-turnaround search-copy-paste-print homework routines rather than more thorough research.
  • Infomediaries occasionally demonstrate empathy by treating the rules flexibly, for good reasons. They may adjust prices for low-income users, or they may extend hours of operations in certain circumstances (e.g., when exam results were posted online in Bangladesh, or, in Chile, when trainees needed weekend training sessions).


The findings of these five in-depth studies complement those of the surveys in multiple ways, to form a richly textured picture of uses and impacts of public access venues. Across the various studies, four core themes emerge.

1) Each of the five studies provides evidence that public access is not simply a transient substitute for private access, nor is it necessarily inferior to private access. Rather, public access and private access are often complements: people who have private access to computers and the internet also find important reasons to frequent public access venues. Whether public or private access is preferred for a given activity depends on multiple factors, ranging from timing and circumstances to the user’s particular purpose. While some may prefer the privacy and immediate convenience of home access, others seek social interaction or assistance in public access venues. Such individual preferences may vary over time.

2) Second, all five studies describe complex, fine-grained practices developed by public access venue users to take advantage of the opportunities and affordances of various access options. Information technology users, at all levels of sophistication, understand the particular benefits and drawbacks of public access, and they have smart, adaptive strategies to use one or several access options in combination, individually or in concert with other users. The nuanced picture of public access that emerges from these accounts highlights the important place it holds in the user’s access toolkit.

3) The in-depth studies all suggest that public access plays a critical role for the most vulnerable populations. They confirm the survey finding that many among the youngest, poorest, and most marginalized populations first encounter information technology at public access venues. These venues are the primary avenue through which they develop the skills to use computers and the internet and where they can get assistance in working toward digital literacy. For these users, the particular combination of opportunities offered by public access seems essential — including the availability of expert assistance or informal peer learning, the option to develop skills through alternative pathways (that may include gaming and social networking), the ability to remain connected with distant family members, and the use of a quiet and safe place to do homework or other instrumental tasks.

4) The five in-depth studies show that public access opens multiple alternative pathways to digital literacy. Users repeatedly cited “learning” as a key reason why they frequent public access venues. What they have in mind, however, is not formal education or training in classes, but various informal ways of learning: by doing, by watching others, and by playing; or through communication with others or the mentorship of thoughtful infomediaries. For the most marginalized populations, these alternative pathways may be especially adapted to their learning styles. Viewed in this light, public access venues represent a crucial laboratory for the discovery and development of non-traditional paths to digital literacy.

  1. This chapter draws extensively from the final reports of five Global Impact Study in-depth studies, listed in Appendix 3, without including specific citations. Full citations and bibliographies can be found in each of the study reports.
  2. The three countries provide a continuum with regard to the extent of internet penetration to the home and speed of connectivity, with Lithuania being among the highest in the world and Bangladesh among the lowest.
  3. The one exception was the training offered by the Chilean Biblioredes program for infomediaries that includes modules on empathy. However, this aspect was given less priority than technical skills training, and there was no attention to this dimension in the formal performance evaluation of staff.
  4. There are indications that the Ghanaian respondents may have overstated their mobile internet use, so these data should be treated with caution.


Connecting people for development: Why public access ICTs matter Copyright © 2013 by Technology & Social Change Group, University of Washington Information School. All Rights Reserved.


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