9 Public Access in a Development Context

An early understanding of the ICT landscape viewed public access as merely an intermediate step on the road to private access. The findings reported here support a more nuanced understanding. Public ICT access can be understood both as a (sometimes temporary) substitute for private access, but also as a (potentially permanent) complement to private access, as documented in this report.

Public access encompasses a wide variety of venues in many countries. A significant body of research has examined a range of specific issues surrounding public access venues, including:

  • the transitory nature of many privately operated venues, alongside reported spikes in the number of such businesses
  • the sustainability challenges of government- or donor-funded public access venues
  • the lack of appropriate models for rural settings, which face special infrastructure problems
  • different patterns of actual use, such as inequitable participation of women or girls
  • whether these venues are delivering any meaningful benefits to the target communities

This chapter reviews the main findings of the five years of research conducted by the Global Impact Study team, and offers some thoughts on the implications of these findings for the broader socioeconomic development agenda.

Throughout its lifespan, this study has adopted no specific definition of socioeconomic development. Development is conceptualized in terms of the specific goals that policymakers, donor agencies, and public access practitioners have set, as well as the outcomes that public access users themselves — and non-users — are trying to achieve. The Global Impact Study however generally also favors the view of development as freedom, proposed by Amartya Sen (2000). This investigation into public access ICTs has accordingly been structured to discover how the use of public access can contribute to the enhancement of people’s capabilities to do those things they have reason to value.

Overview of findings

The Global Impact Study addresses three broad research goals: to identify the impacts of public access to ICTs; to assess the magnitude of those impacts; and to investigate the relationship between the costs and benefits of public access ICTs. The study was especially interested in identifying trends that cut across multiple contexts (e.g., countries and venue types), to point to conclusions about public access as a global phenomenon. The research included eight countries and multiple research treatments.

The research model identified six factors relevant for gauging the impacts of public access: (1) geographic and social reach; (2) patterns of use; (3) location and design of public access venues; (4) details of operation and services provided by venues; (5) the specific information ecology context; and (6) the policy environment.

What are the impacts of public access to information and communication technologies?

Public access has both first-order and second-order effects. It is generally recognized that computer and internet technologies are crucial resources for functioning in today’s society. It is assumed, then, that populations that do not have access to ICTs are disadvantaged in the global economy. The question addressed in this research concerns the specific impacts of the public access model of delivering ICTs. The first-order effects of public access lie in enabling target populations to overcome the limitations that hamper their ability to access and make productive use of ICTs (e.g., poverty or lack of appropriate skills). In other words, digital inclusion is the fundamental first-order effect of public access provision.

The research identifies three levels of this type of inclusion: technology access, information access, and the development of ICT skills. Technology access is possibly the heart of the value that users attach to public access — being able to access the technology without having to invest in personal ownership. Indeed, lack of alternative forms of access to ICTs tops the list of users’ reasons for patronizing public access venues. For many users and former users, this is where they had their first encounter with computers and the internet.

Information access flows from technology access, as computers and the internet are gateways to a wealth of information on different issues. Study data show that users take advantage of both the technological and the human intermediary resources at public access venues to access information that would otherwise not be directly available to them.

A critical impact of public access is its role in facilitating the development of ICT skills (defined narrowly in terms of development of general computer and internet skills). This may be accomplished directly through training and support services, or indirectly, by providing a space for hands-on exploration and experimentation with digital technologies as well as collaborative learning. Public access users consistently acknowledge the contribution of venues in the development of their computer and internet skills.

Beyond digital inclusion, public access has other outcomes — here considered second-order effects — that transform digital inclusion into social and economic impacts. The project surveys elicited users’ perceptions on the impacts of public access in five development-oriented priority domains: Culture & Language, Education, Employment & Income, Governance, and Health. An additional domain was included that is clearly a priority for users, based on reported usage patterns: Communications & Leisure. From the perspective of users, public access delivers benefits that touch on all these aspects of their lives. In every domain it is clear that, to differing degrees, the availability of public access enables users to engage — to participate in those aspects of personal, social, economic, and civic life that are important to them.

These impacts are not limited to those who depend on public access for ICTs. Former users, non-users, and people who have alternatives to public access also report benefits. Former users indicated that public access was important to them in the past, setting them up (the study suggests) for participation in the information society. Those who have other means of accessing ICTs (at home or work) find compelling reasons to visit public access venues when they need better equipment or other resources. Non-users report indirect benefits, through the use of public access by their family and friends. Although direct access is shown to deliver more impacts, these indirect uses and outcomes are often substantial.

Overall, there were relatively limited indications of negative impacts. These mostly related to financial and time expenditures involved in using public access venues.

Public access enables development in personal, social, economic, and other areas of life by providing the technological and human tools that allow people to participate in the information society. Public access supports the development of knowledge and skills (at many levels) to navigate the digital world — and through that also the real world. Public access provides users with benefits in a variety of ways: supporting communication and social interaction; supporting information-seeking on diverse topics; supporting service-seeking in multiple areas of the economy; improving efficiency and reducing transaction costs to get things done; and supporting the pursuit of leisure activities. Public access is not a monolithic force.

What is the magnitude of public access impacts?

How big or small are public access impacts, and how can they be measured? The Global Impact Study measured the magnitude of a particular impact by the percentage of respondents reporting — as positive, negative, or non-existent. This seemed more feasible than trying to measure the change in a particular area of a particular person’s life as a result of using public access. As defined by this study, the magnitude of public access impacts varies substantially depending on the population and the domain involved.

Public access impacts were not assessed in terms of scale — as either big or small — but rather as either broad-based and cross-cutting or targeted. In some areas, public access impacts were quite expansive, spanning young and old populations, urban and non-urban, male and female, employed and unemployed, and so on. This tended to be the case in areas related to the Education and Communications & Leisure domains, where over 80% of users and over 50% of non-users indicated positive impact from their own use or their family and friends’ use of public access. In the other four domains — Culture & Language, Employment & Income, Governance, and Health — public access impacts were more narrowly focused on specific populations, and for these populations the impacts were also overwhelmingly positive.

Looking more closely at some specific goals that users pursue at public access venues, the study found very high reported levels of goal achievement, indicating that the resources available at public access venues are effective in enabling users to accomplish specific tasks. That is not to say that public access venues are perfect in their service delivery. Important factors may include the level of users’ motivation and personal abilities; moreover, users’ reports that they have achieved specific goals may or may not be justified. Setting aside these considerations that fall outside the scope of analysis in the study, it is clear that public access users gain access to the tools they need in order to attempt, and often to complete, specific computer or internet-related tasks

The study also compared users’ and non-users’ perceptions of positive impacts from public access usage, and further compared these impacts to the reported impact of alternative channels for information and communication. The results suggest that having direct access to ICTs and related resources makes a difference: the highest percentage of positive ratings of public access came from public access users. Non-users experienced some positive indirect impacts as well, though not as much as from their other information and communication resources. There is no judgment implied about the quality of the different resources (public access versus radio or television, for example), although this could make for interesting further investigation.

What is the relationship between the costs and benefits of providing and using public access ICTs?

A relatively unexplored area of public access is the relationship between the costs and benefits of providing public access. The research was designed to illuminate this topic from the perspective of both service providers and service users. However, it was difficult to collect adequate cost data from public access venues, so the reported results relate only to the users’ perspective on the costs and benefits of public access. The travel cost method provides an expression of the value users place on public access by asking how much they pay annually, or are willing to pay, to reach a public access venue. In purchasing power parity terms, this amount ranged from $15 in Ghana to $83 in Brazil. The data also show that any form of access is worth an expenditure: where users do not have a variety of options, they are prepared to pay to get to whatever is available. However, in Chile and the Philippines, libraries appear to be more highly valued than other venue types, as users were willing to pay more to reach a library than a cybercafé. In a separate study in Chile, this finding was confirmed. Both users and non-users indicated willingness to pay about $49 to keep libraries open, compared to $16 for telecenters and $7 for cybercafés (all annual, in purchasing power parity).

Would non-users of public access be willing to pay for public access to be available to people other than themselves? A positive finding would be an important indicator of the social value of public access. The results point to the extensive reach of public access: non-users in the five survey countries indicated a willingness to pay ranging from $2 (Bangladesh) to $101 (Philippines) to keep public access venues open.

In summary, the populations of both users and non-users appear to recognize the value of public access and are willing to pay — either to access such venues themselves or to ensure the continued availability of public access venues of all types.

Contextualizing public access impacts

The following discussion covers broader questions about public ICT access, from a policy perspective: whether it remains relevant, whether it substitutes for private access, how is it used by priority populations in priority domains, whether venue type matters, and how to measure public access impacts.

  1. Is public access still relevant?

    The evidence is clear and unambiguous: public access venues play a critical role in extending the benefits of ICTs to large swaths of the population. Using multiple lenses, the study found that the impacts are significant. Public access venues constitute the only option for many, the place where a majority of users had their first contact with computers and the internet and learned ICT skills, and an important resource for information that they cannot find elsewhere. Users experience positive impacts across a wide range of areas. They also seek information and perform services on behalf of others, as confirmed by both users and non-users. People’s use of the internet would decline if public access were to disappear, and even among those who have alternative (i.e., private) access, public access venues are a valuable resource. The study also found that public access was important to ex-users, indicating a formative role in introducing new users to computers and the internet. That non-users expressed a willingness to pay to keep public access facilities open further supports the conclusion that the public values these institutions and services in their communities.

    The rise of mobile telephony only reinforces this picture. Mobile phones are not a substitute for ICT access. While they have become a critical resource in the repertoire of information and communication resources, this form of private access does not appear to lessen the importance of public access venues. Indeed, a great majority of public access users do possess mobile phones. Even youth who own mobile internet devices (a rapidly growing demographic) use, and value, the affordances provided by public access venues.

    A feature of public access that cannot be duplicated by mobile access is the physicality of the place. A major driver of public access use is the desire to be with others — not just for social reasons, but also to learn skills and to glean information resources from others. This important function seems to go largely unnoticed in the development community, but it warrants serious consideration. Hubs that serve as gathering places can play an important role in the social life of a community.

    A country’s stage of connectivity seems to matter, with implications for the best way to configure public access to meet the needs of the population. In countries with low connectivity, public access can stimulate individual curiosity and provide an initial ICT experience. Users in Bangladesh and Ghana (the two countries surveyed with lower connectivity) are especially reliant on staff assistance. Their use of ICTs would decline more precipitously, in the absence of public access venues, than that of users in the other surveyed countries. However, public access is equally important in higher connectivity countries — particularly for ensuring that all residents, especially more marginalized groups, can access the skills and resources to join the information society.

    Finally, public access is part of an ecology of information and communication resources. In addition to mobile phones, people’s information needs are met through TV, radio, and print materials, as well as directly from health professionals and others. One form of access does not disappear when another becomes available. People learn to navigate the range of information options to meet their personal needs. While public access has lost its appeal for experts in many development circles, its staying power and lasting significance for broad sectors of the public — in all countries — cannot be underestimated.

  2. Is public access to ICTs a substitute or a complement to home access?

    Western countries, which experienced very rapid growth of computer and internet penetration, inspired the stepping stone hypothesis in relation to public and private ICT access: public access venues were seen as providing a stepping stone to reach the ultimate goal of widespread private access. The numerous initiatives to boost public access to address the digital divide were short lived — with the notable exception of connected libraries, which continue to thrive. The experience of Lithuania illustrates the demise of numerous cybercafés, as home uptake of ICTs has accelerated in recent years, to the point that most remaining public access venues are libraries. However, extrapolating from these experiences and generalizing for developing countries would be simplistic.

    The study examined whether public access is a stepping stone to private access, or, alternatively, whether it represents an enhanced user experience that offers benefits beyond those available through private access. The answer to this question has implications for a range of interventions that could be critical for the future of public access.

    The user survey found that a large number of public access users in fact own computers with internet connections. In Brazil, for example, the internet penetration at home among venue users is an impressive 40% (compared with the national average of24% in 2009). In Chile, one-third of public access users have internet connections at home, as do about one-quarter of users in Ghana and the Philippines. In all countries — even in Bangladesh, with the lowest share — the percentage of public access users with ICTs exceeds the average home penetration in that country. Based as they are on a large number of surveyed users, these findings provide a concise answer to the question of continued relevance of public ICT access.

    What attracts so many to public access, when they could use ICTs in the comfort of their homes? Users cite several reasons: better equipment, faster connections, access to infomediaries and peers for needed help, and the sharing experience. Other reasons might be suggested, such as competition from family members or the benefits of socialization. Whatever the reasons, the fact remains that having home access does not lead to the disappearance of those users from public access.

    On the other hand, data from the non-user survey also confirm that the stepping stone phenomenon is also at work, and indeed quantify it. The data reveal that about 15% of non-users are former public access users who currently use ICTs elsewhere. More than half of this group had been very frequent users (daily or at least weekly), and about three-quarters report that they stopped going because they have private computer and internet access.

    Both tendencies, then, can be observed: some users stop going to public access venues as a result of private access, while a very large number of people with home access continue to be regular public access users. For this latter group, public access is complementary to private access. This can be explained in terms of the overall evolution of the penetration and use of ICTs, pointing to the mutual reinforcement of multiple modalities of access. Based on all indicators to date, many developing countries are at the early stages of ICT penetration. Moreover, the rates of adoption are not comparable to those seen in western countries in the past two decades. It may take decades for some countries to reach high levels of home connectivity, so that, even under the substitute scenario, public ICT access will remain a critically important service. Finally, some of these countries may be developing their own distinctive modality of ICT use, reflecting their own cultural norms, communal attitudes, or practical considerations. These modalities may emphasize the value of rationalizing use, sharing premises or workstations, and learning collaboratively. Both of these trends, the rate of adoption and emergence of distinctive modalities, need to be monitored over time.

  3. Uses and impacts by priority populations

    The goal of most public and donor-funded initiatives is to reach priority populations that are perceived as disadvantaged in some way (low socioeconomic status, unemployed, at-risk youth, rural residents, minorities, women, etc.). This study has focused on the uses and impacts of public access by such groups, finding in almost every instance that their experiences are on par with their more advantaged counterparts. These are encouraging findings for policy makers.

    At the same time, the evidence shows that most public access users are of middle socioeconomic status, as well as urban, male, and young. As this observation is often raised as a point of criticism of public access, the user profile warrants discussion here.

    Youth: The importance of providing increased opportunities for youth is generally recognized. Much of the developing world is experiencing a “youth bubble,” constituting a large proportion of the unemployed (even after years of education). As this is the group most easily able to use and adapt new technologies, there is a strong argument to be made that expanding the youth’s access to computers and the internet — including such public access services as training, distance learning, and job placement — will yield broad economic benefits in the long term. Fortunately, young people also seem to find public access venues to be safe and supportive environments for engaging with technology and one another.

    Socioeconomic status: Expanded ICT use by middle-income residents is also likely to have a positive impact on a country’s economic and social development. As a country struggles to expand the middle class, the opportunity for employed adults to use public access ICT facilities (including for business purposes) is a trend to be embraced. Without public access venues, these middle class users would be without digital access, at serious cost to their livelihoods and to the national economy. Moreover, non-users reported a sharing effect, as these relatively better-off or better-educated users perform digital tasks “by proxy” for their non-user friends and relatives.

    Gender: In many countries, women continue to face obstacles to public access patronage. Addressing this inequity is essential. There are encouraging trends: particularly as connectivity rates rise, females are represented in public access facilities in larger proportions (as in Chile). (In Bangladesh, where there are cultural barriers to women’s access, the institution of door-to-door “infoladies” provides some access for women in a private setting.) Libraries and telecenters appear to be particularly welcoming to females, perhaps reflecting the way they are configured and staffed. Female users benefit equally to males, so it is important for policy makers and practitioners to take steps to ensure the broadest participation of females.

    Urban/rural: The concentration of public access venues in urban areas is not surprising. Venues follow economic activity and population density — and overwhelmingly, cybercafés are filling this market need. Users of cybercafés report significant positive impacts across all priority domains, although at a slightly lower rate than users of libraries. Most rural areas would lack venues entirely if it were not for public (government) and donor provision, especially in countries with lower connectivity. Since rural venue users (controlling for experience and other factors) report benefits similar to urban users, public policy needs to consider appropriate strategies both for densely populated areas (which are typically well-served by cybercafés) and for sparsely populated rural regions.

  4. Uses and impacts in priority domains

    Most public and donor initiatives focus on the use of public access facilities for activities in specific domains: Education, Governance, Health, and so on. These are considered the “productive” uses of computers, and any sign of low usage in these target domains is often considered indication of a failure of the public access model. A similar critique relates to observed high levels of usage in the domain Communications & Leisure: Skype and Facebook as well as computer games are typically viewed as frivolous (non-instrumental or unproductive) activities that do not merit public subsidy.

    The study data indeed show a relatively low percentage of users (below 40%) who report impacts in most of the priority domains, except Education. The Communications & Leisure domain shows a much higher percentage. However, those users who are engaged in the high priority domains report that they do achieve specific tasks and experience positive impacts in very high proportions. Low popularity of an activity, or low frequency of use, does not mean low importance. Even though twice as many users reported a positive impact in pursuing interests & hobbies compared with health, accessing critical health information is likely quite important to those who use public access for this purpose.

    It may be appropriate to characterize people’s activities at a public access venue as either routine or episodic, in terms of frequency. Routine uses are those activities one is likely to be engaged in on every visit, or nearly every visit, to a public access venue. Communications (email, social networking, etc.) top the list of routine activities, along with meeting new people and pursuing leisure activities, among others. For student users, educational activities are also most likely a routine use. Episodic uses are done less frequently: a few times per year (e.g., accessing government services) or even less frequently, as need arises (e.g., looking for a new job). Since (as the data show) public access users visit venues frequently, and in many cases daily, their episodic uses are likely to be varied. One is unlikely to access a government service every day, in contrast to (for example) sending an email to a friend. It is therefore not appropriate to assess every activity by the same standard. Rather than comparing usage rates for different activities, it may be more productive to evaluate usage rates on the basis of the typical frequency of such activities, as well as the proportion of the population that one might expect to engage in (and benefit from) specific activities

    This understanding of usage patterns provides some context for the sometimes numerous “no impact” responses for particular impact categories. In fact, “no impact” responses are overwhelmingly linked to non-use in the domain. Non-use, in turn, appears to be related to whether or not a particular area of activity is relevant or even feasible for the user. For example, an individual who is not experiencing health issues and who has relatively low interest in that area is not likely to spend much time researching health information and services online, and would accordingly report “no impacts” in the area of health. Likewise, where no government services are available online, people will experience “no impacts” in that domain.

    Regarding Communications & Leisure activities, this study challenges the commonly held view that these activities do not lead to productive outcomes. Most obviously, people rely on both email and social networks to accomplish instrumental tasks, such as requesting information or seeking employment. Less obviously, playing games and engaging in other leisure pursuits in fact build important computer skills that are transferable to the workplace. The study found no difference between instrumental and non-instrumental users in their ability to accomplish specific instrumental tasks. This has important implications for public policy, in recognizing the utility and value of this extremely common area of activity. It is significant also for the operators of public access facilities, in deciding on the specific restrictions to place on non-instrumental activities. Moreover, current trends worldwide show the growing value of social networks for individuals, for a range of outcomes. From networked job referrals to political uprisings, there is evidence that “virtual” social ties have real-world importance, enriching the lives of people and combating social isolation. Indeed, it is impossible to predict the downstream impact of any particular act of communication or sharing.

  5. Does venue type matter?

    At the most basic level, research found that people everywhere crave access, defined most simply by availability of internet connection and computer equipment. The data on willingness to pay show that people — both users and non-users — will pay to keep public access open in their communities. Travel data show that few travel more than 2 kilometers to visit a public access venue, and most travel less than 1 kilometer. This means that the vast majority of people use cybercafés, as the most widespread type of venue.

    Cybercafés do a credible job of catering to users’ needs, including in the area of infomediation: cybercafé staff went to similar lengths as library and telecenter staff to meet people’s technical and information needs. This may contribute to the high proportions of positive impact reported by cybercafé users. It is a welcome finding, given that cybercafés are ubiquitous in most parts of the developing world — and unlikely ever to be outnumbered by public/donor supported venues. In short, cybercafés serve as an important component in public ICT access.

    Other factors can be important, however, especially to certain users and populations. More libraries and telecenters offer in-house training than cybercafés, by a ratio of six to one. For introducing and familiarizing new users with ICTs, this may be a critical service in many countries, especially those at lower levels of connectivity and those that have sizeable non-user populations (e.g., elderly, rural residents). The Bangladesh data further illuminate the critical role of publicly/donor-supported venues. Nearly half of the respondents use staff assistance every time or most times they visit a public access venue. In rural areas, moreover, public access would be unavailable for most without the presence of telecenters. In terms of gender, too, the data suggest that libraries and telecenters do a better job of welcoming females.

    Looking at the priority domains, there also are differences. Library users report positive impacts in significantly higher proportions than cybercafé users in such areas as Culture & Language, Governance, and Health. While researchers have yet to fully analyze the reasons for this, they are likely rooted in the characteristics of the venue — the staff, services, and overall environment.

    Another important consideration is the fact that all public libraries, and nearly three-quarters of telecenters, are affiliated with a larger entity. In the case of public libraries, this is the national public library system. Telecenters are affiliated through both national and sub-national organizations as well as networks of varying types. These horizontal and vertical affiliations enable services to be rolled out across a country to target particular users and specific uses. In the course of this study, for example, Chile initiated a new e-Government procurement service, requiring all small businesses bidding on public projects to use the new online system. Libraries and telecenters were key instruments for registering and training people on the new system.

    If people had the option, they might choose a library or telecenter over a cybercafé. The benefit cost analysis sheds light on this question. In those locations where people are likely more familiar with the different venue types, non-user willingness to pay showed a clear preference for libraries and telecenters. In Chile, the surveyed country with the greatest number of public libraries as well as a large number of telecenters, non-user willingness to pay was highest for libraries followed by telecenters, with cybercafés in last position. In countries where connected libraries are largely absent — Bangladesh and Ghana, in the study’s sample — there is greater willingness to pay for cybercafés than for (largely unavailable) libraries or telecenters.

    All told, it remains to decision makers to judge whether the value added of libraries and/or telecenters justify the resources required to support these venues. This will likely vary on a country by country basis.

  6. Measuring public access impacts

    With significant resources expended on public access facilities (particularly non-profit), policy makers naturally seek evidence of social and financial returns on investment — which are notoriously difficult to pin down in direct and unambiguous ways. (See Patricia Rogers, 2008, for a useful discussion of the use of program theory to evaluate complicated and complex aspects of interventions.) Is it possible to infer causal linkages between a user’s activity at a public access venue and any subsequent changes in the user’s life? Can those changes be attributed to public access? Or did the venue make a contribution to those impacts? This study provides some support for the contribution case.

    It is difficult to determine that a particular outcome was a direct result of using ICTs at a public access venue, or of using ICTs (irrespective of the location of use), or of some external factors unrelated to ICT use or use context. In the Employment & Income domain, for example, researchers asked survey respondents whether they had looked for a job, whether they found this information, and (if yes) whether they had used the information they found to apply for a job. The logical next question is whether they got the job. But how would researchers interpret that answer? If the individual got the job, was it because they applied for the job at a public access venue, or might they have applied elsewhere and gotten the job? Or, if they did not get the job — possibly because they lacked the qualifications — would that represent a failure of public access? These types of questions emerged consistently in each domain.

    Certainly some methodologies (such as experiments or randomized controlled trials) might be able to tease out some of these factors, but this would be a complex approach with the current state of the art. Moreover, because the public access phenomenon has so many facets, variants, and realms of influence, much is bound to be overlooked in any attempt to measure impacts out of their real-world context.

    For now at least, it is reasonable to conclude that public access contributes to the process of pursuing specific goals, but cannot always be determined to cause (or not cause) particular impacts. This contributory role is critical and provides a foundation for continuing benefits over time — similar to the role of education, in contributing to an individual’s later economic success. It is important when considering the impacts of public access to adopt a realistic stance in terms of expectations, and to recognize the true, lasting value of the services these venues provide.

    Estimates of the impact of public access on users capture only part of the story. There are two populations of interest that are rarely considered in measuring the impacts of public access: people who have used public access in the past but no longer do, and people who do not personally use venues but derive benefits indirectly from those that do. The study has demonstrated that both of these groups derive benefits from, and ascribe value to, public ICT access.

    Across all categories of use and domains of impact, country context matters. The research results presented here are not uniformly generalizable to other countries, though every effort is made to draw out those elements of the public access phenomenon that seem to cut across contexts. Nevertheless, evidence is coming together to suggest that countries with similar socioeconomic environments may experience similar results. Critically, the broader national environment needs to be addressed in parallel with the rollout of public access, to enable this resource to deliver expected results.

    One underlying goal of most development efforts is to reduce levels of social exclusion, a condition that fosters the cycle of poverty and disadvantage. The increasing dominance of ICTs as the medium of choice for the information society adds a new layer to the problem: those already excluded become more excluded by not being able to participate in this new form of interaction, while some who were previously included may now become excluded if they cannot adapt to the changing times. At the same time, these technologies also have the potential to facilitate social inclusion, by eliminating some of the barriers of time, space, and expense that restrict individual advancement. From this point of view, simply enabling people to participate is an important and desirable impact, even before assessing the quality of participation and its direct impacts. When public access is examined from the perspective of social inclusion, the impact question changes. By virtue of having public access, are people more socially excluded or less? Are individuals’ life chances improved by enabling technology access (even though social inequities may persist in other areas of their lives)? This is a different approach than asking whether public access leads to a 10% increase in income.

    Finally, there are questions to be asked about the timeframe for trying to identify impacts. With very different rates of ICT diffusion and public access deployment and uptake, what are the implications for the rate of emerging impacts? Will these take six months or two years, or more? Do some impacts take longer to manifest than others? And do some impacts either intensify or dissipate over time?

Summary

The impacts of public access cannot be measured in a generic fashion. Assessments must take into account different modes of venue configuration, specific facilities and services offered, and the heterogeneity of user populations, as well as the country context of the information economy. Impact assessments need to be designed for the appropriate levels and targets of analysis — whether the target is broad basic technology access or improving maternal health care.

For a meaningful economic and social life, people need multiple capabilities: a means of generating income; opportunities for formal and informal learning; the ability to maintain their health and well-being; access to local and national government; the ability to exercise informed democratic rights and obligations; and the ability to observe and participate in the production of their cultural heritage. Much more could be added to this list: having the resources to build, maintain, and enhance social connections, as a capability with potentially far-reaching implications for livelihoods and well-being. Neither should the human importance of leisure be devalued — the ability to play, laugh, and pursue personal interests or desires. These are all components of a good quality of life.

Arguably, what public access venues offer is greater ability to pursue these ends. The broader social, economic, and political context will determine whether exercising these abilities translates into specific social or economic indicators: increased income, employment, admission into college, improved health, or preservation of culture. Measuring the precise contribution of public access to such indicators, among the mix of other local and national resources, is a complex task, one beyond the scope of the Global Impact Study. The Global Impact survey data are openly accessible, however, and others are invited to make use of these data to further explore the issues raised here and more. Researchers hope that the results presented here will contribute usefully to the body of knowledge on the impacts of public access, and that they can help inform decision-making processes when considering the potential of public access as a factor in meeting broad policy objectives.

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