Providing Equal Public Access To ICTs To Bridge The Digital Divide

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While the last decade has been characterised by an explosion in the availability of information and communication technologies (ICTs), in 2014 the digital divide still exists and 4 billion people are not yet connected to the internet, especially those from the developing world. In order to achieve digital inclusion for all, speakers on a recent panel called for support for equal public access to ICTs notably through public libraries and other community centres.

A 9 June pre-event meeting of the UN-led “WSIS +10 High Level Event” was entitled “Conquering the Digital Divide: How public access to ICTs supports development in the information society.” The event, organised by the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA) and moderated by Director of Policy and Advocacy Stuart Hamilton, brought speakers from government, business and civil society to share their views on this challenge for the future of the information society.

The WSIS +10 High Level was held from 10-13 June at the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) took place in two phases, 2003 (Geneva) and 2005 (Tunis, Tunisia).

There is no commonly agreed definition of public access, but according to a briefing on Public Access for the Commission on Science and Technology for Development [pdf], “these are usually facilities which allow any member of the public to make affordable use of computers with broadband connections, along with associated ICT tools, such as printers and scanners as well as technical support for using the internet.

Public access facilities may be purpose-built state-supported “telecentres” or “community multimedia centres” (CMCs), or private “cybercafés.” Locating public access services in existing institutions situated in the community, such as libraries and post offices, is often a particularly effective method of deploying public access.

Public Access a Core Component

“We still have a long way to go,” said Mike Jensen, internet access specialist at Association for Progressive Communications in South Africa. He said attention to public access has been drawn away by the incredible growth of mobile access, especially among people at the bottom of the pyramid some years ago.

This rapid growth of internet-connected mobile phones led to “the idea of leapfrogging public access and going straight to private access for full broadband in the home,” he said.

However, according to in-depth research carried out by the Technology & Social Change Group (TASCHA) at the University of Washington, “there is a significant demand and need for public access which go beyond people’s domestic access in their home,” he said.

This is especially the case for providing “a safe space for users who might to feel intimidated by accessing certain types of information from home or schools and also as resource to get technical expertise on where or how to navigate on the internet,” he said.

While projects have been delivered to develop public access facilities, their enabling environments were not fully in place and many of these centres were unsustainable, he said.

Jensen touched on some models to make public access more sustainable. The real need, he said, “is to combine the facilities,” so as to use existing public buildings such as libraries, schools, and community centres rather than building high cost freestanding services.

Investment should also be made in broadband (high-speed internet) infrastructure in rural areas according a coherent strategy, and relevant content for developing countries should be created, he said.

Bringing Women Online

A focus on the participation of women in ICTs was presented by Iffat Gill, activist and researcher at Worldpulse for Pakistan, a network of nearly 60,000 [corrected] women from more than 190 countries using the power of digital media to connect and bring them a global voice.

Recently, a campaign entitled “Women Weave the Web” was launched with the purpose of crowdsourcing solutions and testimonies from women regarding public access in their respective communities. The campaign encompasses three phases: digital access, digital literacy and digital empowerment.

So far, more than 180 [corrected] testimonies have been submitted for the digital access phase. Among them, cultural, social, security, and economic barriers with regard to public access to libraries were often mentioned. For instance in Pakistan, public libraries serve as meeting place for men with no designated area for women, in culture that requires segregation.

Based on these testimonies, various recommendations were set, such as increasing digital literacy courses and training in ICTs for women, creating more libraries, establishing specific hours for women in public libraries and dealing with affordability, as “the internet is still a luxury,” she said.

Public Libraries: A Natural Partner for Development

Over the last decade, many projects have been going on with respect to public access, and Hamilton said that “public libraries are now a natural partner for development.”

Presently, there are 320,000 public libraries worldwide with over 223,000 of those in developing and transitioning countries, and 1 billion people estimated to be registered as library users. While there are still a lot of differences on what is available and what is not, “the key is that this infrastructure exists,” he said.

Since 2002, the Gates Foundation has leveraged $US 260 million to connect 15,000 public libraries to the internet in communities that serves almost 100 million people across 16 countries, mostly in Africa, Latin America and Asia.

In addition, the Public Library Innovation Programme, (PLIP Programme) helps to connect more than 300 communities in developing countries to access information on health, agriculture, employment opportunities, and other issues through public libraries.

Another project is Beyond Access, based on a partnership between libraries, government agencies and community organisations, which aims to recognise that the public library is a driving force for development.

A Roadmap for Developing Countries

From a governmental perspective, Vashti Maharaj, director of legal services at the Ministry of Science and Technology in Trinidad and Tobago, identified elements of a roadmap for sustainable public access to the internet, especially for developing countries.

Above all, public access gaps need to be clearly identified. In the majority of developing countries, cultural constraints related to age or gender exist. That’s why it is important to establish what Maharaj called “a national culture of digital inclusion.”

A multi-stakeholder approach is required, with the participation of government, private sector, civil society and specific agencies across the public service with special attention to the target group. Public-private partnerships have proven efficient in the context of broadband development and universal access, he said.

The public need to be sensitised in order to ensure their active utilisation of ICTs and monitoring and evaluation systems should be implemented throughout the project.

“Private Industry Makes the Difference”

In the developed world, the public sector is facing a period of austerity and as Michael Gurstein, executive director at the Centre for Community Informatics Research, Development and Training in Canada, observed, there is a defunding of the institutions providing public access of ICTs such as libraries, schools and community centres.

In fact, ten years ago “there was a much broader base of consensus of the need to support institutions which were providing access to ICT for economic and social development,” he said

To address this financial and policy gap, said Hamilton, “we need to get other ways to provide access that people need,” and in this regard cooperation with the private sector plays a significant role.

Silicon chipmaker Intel has launched many initiatives, said John Davies, vice president of the sales and marketing group at Intel Corporation, such as the World Ahead Program to promote increased access to technology for people across emerging countries.

These projects have helped improve education and healthcare, stimulate economies, and enrich people’s lives, he said, however, none of these programmes would work “if there was not a significant government plan and certainly not if private industry was not putting things in, to make the difference.”

From a long-run perspective, according to Jensen, the key “is to try to ensure that public access of ICTs is part of the UN post-2015 Development Agenda. There is still “a lot of room in terms of affecting the indicators of those sustainable development goals,” he said.

 

Joséphine De Ruyck may be reached at info@ip-watch.ch.

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