What evidence exists on the impacts of shared public access to Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs)? Governments, NGOs and entrepreneurs in developing countries have invested significantly in shared modes of access to ICTs (such as public libraries, telecentres and internet cafés), but to what effect? This review from the Center for Information and Society identifies and assesses empirical evidence on: (1) venue performance and sustainability; (2) users: (3) usage patterns; and (4) downstream impacts. Most of the literature evaluates process rather than impact. Solid evidence of impact remains elusive, and the evidence that does exist is mixed.
ICTs are believed to be important in socioeconomic development, but resource constraints in developing nations limit ICT access. Public access ICT initiatives have therefore emerged. Given that many of these have fallen out of use, however, (and that mobile phones are increasingly available), the value of such initiatives is being questioned. An added complication is that it is difficult for individuals in developing countries to convert access to ICTs into tangible benefits because of other environmental constraints.
Available research suggests that public access venues are not fulfilling their potential in terms of achieving sustainability, reaching disadvantaged populations and bringing about noticeable socioâ€Â?economic change. Findings on downstream impacts are inconclusive – some studies find that impacts are high in areas such as development of ICT skills, job creation and civic engagement, while others find limited impacts. Existing evidence suggests that:
- Sustainability is a key challenge: The financial success of public access venues is associated with factors including management effectiveness, location, local demand, new service development, locally relevant services, external links and networking.
- Users are largely ‘middle class’ young men: Most users are young men of relatively high socio-economic status, who are relatively well-educated and already have access to the Internet at other locations. (However, usage on behalf of others should also be taken into account.) Limited usage in rural areas is attributed to failure to make the service relevant to the community.
- Most usage is for social and personal purposes: Main uses are communicating with friends and family, entertainment, doing homework, and developing computer skills. Usage may increase in times of crisis, however, such as natural disasters.
- There is no apparent impact on social equity: Public access to ICTs does not seem to have contributed to social equity. In fact some studies have concluded that public access ICT facilities may enhance the social exclusion of non-users.
- There may be potential for impact on civic engagement: A few studies found evidence of increased civic engagement from shared ICT access, attributing this to the additional provision of resources such as meeting rooms and help with voter registration.
The limited findings that strongly demonstrate downstream impact are usually based on the perceptions of venue staff and users. In addition, findings relating to impact may arguably arise from access to ICTs in general rather than from shared access in particular. It is of course very difficult for researchers to identify and attribute specific impacts to specific ICT usage. Nevertheless, systematic research on these issues is needed that:
- Covers many different locations and contexts.
- Spans significant timeframes.
- Seeks to build on existing literature.
- Uses methods that (whether quantitative or qualitative) enable impacts to be measured.