A primary aim of this research has been to generate actionable information for the Global Impact Study’s key constituencies: decision makers in government and donor organizations, leaders and practitioners of public access programs, and researchers. The findings presented in this report illuminate many facets about when, how, and why impacts occur in public access venues. These findings suggest a number of possible courses of action for advancing the future role of public access.
For policy makers and practitioners, these recommendations are intended to provide a framework for thinking about public access ICTs, rather than to advocate for a set of specific actions in particular circumstances. The public access landscape is complex, and only made more complex by layering on socioeconomic development targets. And in most cases, policy makers and practitioners will be weighing different priorities, goals, and conditions on the ground: there is no one-size-fits-all scenario.
Government and donor organizations
Governments, multilateral agencies, foundations, and other public and private organizations are the primary supporters of the public access model. Many of these entities are currently investing significant resources in public access, others have done so in the past, and still others are contemplating entry into this field. The following recommendations seek to inform the deliberations, decisions, and implementation strategies of organizations across this spectrum.
Support the wide availability of public access venues.
Public access is currently, and will likely remain, a valuable resource for countries worldwide. This research finds overwhelming evidence that public access is filling multiple needs for all population groups, from youth to females to the unemployed to rural residents. These needs are not being met by mobiles or other information and communication resources. At a very fundamental level, the value cannot be overstated of a community hub that enables people to engage with each other and with technology in a physical setting. The benefits that accrue through encounters with other individuals — whether with venue staff or friends, intentional or serendipitous — cannot be easily duplicated via the alternatives.Governments and donor organizations should continue to make public access availability a strategic consideration, especially in situations of market failure (e.g., in rural areas). For countries at low stages of connectivity, public access can make a strong contribution as a viable policy option for decades to come, as private access is unlikely to become widespread in the near future. Countries with higher connectivity can also experience far-reaching benefits, however, in view of the range of reasons (discussed in Chapters 3, 4, and 5) for users to patronize public access.
Use existing infrastructure.
All venue types have value, as shown by the data. At the same time, sustainability is known to be a persistent challenge, particularly for government- or donor-supported venues. Accordingly, decision makers should begin by viewing the landscape to see what already exists. In most countries, this will be libraries and cybercafés.In the surveyed countries (apart from Chile), only a small fraction of public libraries were equipped with computers and the internet. This represents a significant underutilization of the 230,000 public libraries in the developing world. A significant advantage of public libraries is that they are affiliated at the national and/or subnational levels, allowing for large-scale program implementations to reach particular populations with targeted information resources and services. Furthermore, the data shows venue differences in user profiles, activities, and impacts that often favor libraries. Directing investments to these institutions is likely to be an efficient and effective strategy.Cybercafés far outnumber other forms of public access, so that one element of a strategic approach must be leveraging their ubiquity. This will likely require creative approaches. Cybercafés are independent businesses that come and go, and they are mostly unaffiliated with associations or other networks through which higher level policies or programs could be diffused. Moreover, the evidence suggests that cybercafés may not be catering to important groups, such as females, as libraries and telecenters have done. Even so, their numbers cannot be ignored, as they constitute a viable channel. Policy makers need not choose among libraries, telecenters, and cybercafés. There are strong public good arguments to be made, though this project did not uncover specific evidence to advocate for a blanket public goods approach.
Provide, and publicize, domain-specific information and services through public access venues.
Numerous efforts in recent years have focused on developing and distributing domain-specific ICT applications, in health, agriculture, education, and other areas. Even for the many users of the mobile phone platform, however, large gaps exist in awareness and skills needed to use these applications, services, and online resources. The evidence shows that public access venues are important for users with needs in these domains. It also shows that many people may be unaware of such resources, even though they may be offered at public access venues. Public access can play an important function not only in delivering domain-specific resources but also in actively popularizing those resources, whether online or offline. Such efforts are made more feasible through public access venues that are part of large networks.Access to domain-specific resources was an explicit goal of many early public access initiatives — efforts that were hampered in part because relevant resources were not as plentiful a decade ago. This situation is rapidly changing: ongoing work is integrating ICTs into health, education, and other areas. New efforts to ensure that public access venues can serve these needs are likely to have better results than before. Formal partnerships with public access venues are not necessarily required. Another approach would be to make specific services available online, share this information with venue operators, and ensure that they are adequately trained to assist users of these services. These steps could provide the foundation for public access venues to support promotion and delivery of important domain-specific resources. (See below, Practitioner recommendation 5.) Opportunities to leverage domain-specific services in collaboration with public access venues should also be considered. In the governance domain, for instance, public access venues could be used to host data hackathons, develop mobile applications, conduct public awareness campaigns, and undertake other activities that engage the citizenry both with technology and with their governments. For public access to play a more integral role would require proactive collaboration among government policy makers and donor organizations.
Embrace communications and non-instrumental uses.
The hours that venue users devote to communications, social networking, and other “non-productive” uses of technology should not be considered detrimental, but rather included among the objectives served by public access. Many public and donor-supported venues place restrictions on these uses, whether because of resource constraints or unduly narrow assumptions about what constitutes productive use of ICTs. This research showed that these uses in fact build skills and support instrumental aims. Increasingly, people access news resources and other essential information through social media applications rather than traditional websites. More importantly, users are sharing, collaborating, learning, and creating by making use of the panoply of online applications.Leisure activities, such as games, build skills. But even when they do not produce such a highly desirable or sanctioned outcome, supporters may want to consider that such activities constitute behaviors that are as legitimate as any other “serious” activity.
Assess performance against realistic measures.
Governments and donor organizations should not place unrealistic expectations on public access venues and programs. It is important to acknowledge the important contribution public access venues make at the most basic level: providing computer and internet access and fostering the development of basic digital skills. Many early public access initiatives were judged failures because users were not engaged in domains of Health, Government, and the like, at the activity levels hoped for by the planners.This project’s findings suggest that it is important to re-think how to assess venue uses, especially for categories of use that are episodic rather than routine. The data show that different people have different needs, and their needs vary at different times in their lives. The value of public access in these priority areas is that the venues are available when individual needs arise. The use of episodic services cannot be usefully compared to uses that are routine, such as communications. Stakeholders can have confidence in the motivations and legitimate needs of the people who avail themselves of public access venues. Finally, the performance of venues should be assessed based on a well-grounded appreciation of what public access can and cannot do.
Public access practitioners — librarians, infomediaries, venue staff — operate on the front lines of the public access phenomenon. Their capabilities and modes of service delivery, along with the affordances they enable, can directly influence how users and the general public respond to public access, and thus the level of impacts.
Adopt a flexible approach to rules.
Some limits on users’ behavior are necessary to ensure respect for people and property at a public access venue, and to promote venue objectives. Venue rules often target issues such as: noise levels; use of particular computer software; performing certain actions on computers (such as downloading material from the internet or social networking); the amount of time spent on a computer; use of mobile technology; and others. Such restrictions are more common in libraries and telecenters than in cybercafés.However, some restrictions, while well-intentioned, can inhibit some of the behaviors that are most likely to lead to development outcomes. The findings show that playing games develops transferable computer skills, and that people use social media to access educational and other resources, as well as other positive results from activities that are sometimes prohibited.The recommendation is to be sensitive to context — the needs of users, societal trends, new knowledge regarding useful activities — while making adjustments to policies as appropriate to fit the situation. There is often a fine line to be walked in responding to user needs , especially as public access venues attract a diversity of patrons with different preferences regarding environment (e.g., quiet or noisy, private or open). The key is to be flexible to emerging needs, although no single venue may be able to meet them all.
Embrace mobile phone services.
The study results reveal that the vast majority of public access users are also mobile phone owners. Clearly, mobile phones currently do not constitute a threat to the relevance of public access facilities. To the contrary, mobile telephony presents opportunities for venues to leverage or enhance their services. Certainly, holding a mobile phone conversation in the confines of a library, for instance, could be disruptive to patrons who are trying to study (see rules above). However, there are other forms of use that if allowed, could heighten the quality of a user’s experience in the venue. Public access practitioners could consider introducing mobile-based services that allow people to further fine-tune their strategic combinations of the variety of digital technologies available to them — such as printing directly from phones, accessing wireless networks on phones, reserving a computer via SMS, using a cable or Bluetooth to transfer files between phone and computer, and charging phones.
Do not rule out fees too quickly.
Evidence from this study shows that users are willing to pay for ICT resources available at public access venues. Venues facing sustainability pressures may want to consider a fee structure as an option for supporting their activities. However, a decision to institute fees should take into account the socioeconomic status of any priority groups of users or potential users, who may be unable to pay for access, as well as the range of alternative ICT access options. Indeed, people’s willingness to pay for public access may in some cases entail the sacrifice of other needs, and this may not be ideal.
Attend to venue design and the environment for infomediation.
There are a number of features of public access venues that attract users and encourage productive behavior. Knowledge workers (librarians, other trained staff) are particularly valued, and not just for helping inexperienced users. Effective knowledge workers know how to scan the environment and decide when to stay in the background, leaving users to their own devices, and when to offer assistance, perhaps even to experienced users. This broader function of “infomediation” creates the appropriate environment for users to operate based on their unique capabilities and needs, a critical factor in user experience.Another feature is venue configuration. The desire to be with friends or colleagues is a huge draw for public access, and some users report extensive sharing and peer learning in public access venues. Facilitating this sort of interaction requires attention to how the space is configured, including the placement of computers (in open spaces or private booths). As with the recommendation about rules, attention to venue design and infomediation practices will require balancing the sometimes contrasting needs of users.
Make users aware of content availability in priority domains.
The study shows that users may not engage in a particular activity at a public access venue because they “did not think of it.” This suggests that they are not aware of the relevant resources, or they perhaps assume that the venue has no resources in that area. Practitioners should ensure that they publicize the types of resources they have available, so that, as the occasion arises, users would have public access in mind as an option for addressing specific needs.
A primary aim of this project is to re-invigorate debate about the value of public access and to spur new research. Accordingly, the project adopted the principle of open research and open data. These recommendations include specific topics for possible exploration, as well as other opportunities and reflections on new research directions.
Build on methodological lessons.
Much work remains to be done to develop and strengthen methodologies for conceptualizing, identifying, and measuring public access impacts. In pursuing this, the project team offers the following considerations:Country context matters enormously, in particular regarding overall connectivity, presence of different models of public access, extent of public access use (current and historical), and public policies. These differences influence the configuration of the public access landscape, which in turn complicates the pathways to impact. This variability of context needs to be taken into account when attempting to produce generalizable findings, with challenging implications for methodological and analytical decisions.Public access exists within an ecology of information and communication resources and practices. This ecology needs to be accounted for at the research design phase as well as when analyzing and interpreting data. As the survey data showed, both public access users and non-users have a range of tools and resources at their disposal for connecting to their immediate networks and to the rest of the world — including print and other mass media, desktop computers, mobile phones, and other human beings. These connective resources also include use of public access venues. For some purposes, of course, other resources may be more useful (or impactful) than public access venues. Rather than primarily seeking to measure “impacts,” a more productive approach to evaluating the social or economic value of public access could be to explore how public access venues fit into this information ecology. This could lead to more accurate representations that neither inflate nor deflate the importance of public access venues.In developing impact indicators, care should be taken to ensure that venues are not being assessed in terms of unrealistic objectives. (See for example the discussion of routine versus episodic use in Chapter 9.) The study has attempted to clarify an important distinction between digital inclusion impacts and other types of impact, including social and economic impacts that may be only indirectly associated with the use of a public access venue. There are also different implications for evaluating the impact of a particular public access venue, versus assessing the impacts of public access as a general phenomenon. Researchers have a responsibility to help develop appropriate measures of the effectiveness of public access venues, and to engage with policymakers, development agents, and practitioners to moderate unrealistic expectations.Collecting financial information from diverse public access venues is a difficult challenge. Rather than attempt large-sample survey methodologies, a more viable strategy would be an in-depth method, involving smaller samples of venues, to cooperate with respondents in producing accurate cost data. Building trust with the informant over time, scheduling meetings well in advance, and prepping the informant with the questions in advance are important steps. Such an approach should result in a smaller sample of more reliable information. This requires field time of selected researchers who are able to communicate and build trust with key informants.
Conduct deeper analysis on questions raised by this report.
The project team was inevitably limited in the range of questions analyzed in this study, leaving a plethora of other questions for future research. Moreover, the findings revealed through the analysis also generate new questions. Today’s researchers must address an information and technology landscape that is significantly different from five years ago, when this research was designed — potentially raising new questions as well. Researchers can make use of the inventory and survey data made available by this project, to enable analyses such as:Uncovering the conditions under which impact occurs, linking user outcomes to such variables as a venue’s technical infrastructure, rules, knowledge workers, and locationFurther exploring specific user populations, such as youth, women, unemployed, etc.Conducting GIS analysis, using the project’s inventory of 65,000+ geo-located venuesFurther analyzing past impacts and indirect impacts of public access
Explore open inventory and survey data.
The Global Impact Study was designed from the outset to follow principles of open research, embracing the goal of generating and making publicly available all datasets and other resources, in addition to project publications. In keeping with this aim, the survey instruments were designed to be especially broad and detailed: the goal was to build a base of information that could be shared with other researchers, rather than to collect just the specific data for this report. Indeed, the results presented in this report represent only a small fraction of the research accomplished.Researchers interested in public access and impact assessment are encouraged to explore the data and run their own analyses to provide further illumination on this topic and to suggest further areas of investigation. In addition to the data, all research tools (e.g., survey instruments, sampling strategies, and inventory data template) are also made available, for use in conducting additional fieldwork in this area. Researchers working in Mozambique and Liberia have already replicated the inventory and surveys (articles forthcoming).All datasets, instruments, codebooks, methodological notes, and other resources can be found on the project website: www.globalimpactstudy.org.