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Published by: THINK The Innovation Knowledge Foundation on Sep 21, 2012
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19
Ricardo Gomez
rgomez@uw.eduAssistant ProfessorThe Information SchoolUniversity of WashingtonBox 352840Seattle, WA 98195USA
UsersPerceptions of the Impact of Public Access Computing in Colombia GOMEZ
Research Article
Users’ Perceptions of the Impactof Public Access Computing inColombia: Libraries, Telecenters,and Cybercafés
1
 Abstract 
Measuring the impact of information and communication technologies (ICT)for community development is critical, yet it remains elusive. This article pre- sents ªndings from an exploratory study of public access computing (PAC) ser-vices in Colombia, South America, conducted by University of Washington re- searchers and local partners. Using both qualitative and quantitative methods,the study explores perceptions of the impact of ICT on people’s lives from the perspective of users of libraries, telecenters, and cybercafés around the coun-try. Understanding the broader dimension of PAC services, instead of focusingon only a single type of venue (i.e., only libraries, telecenters, or cybercafés),offers a more complete picture of both how people use PAC and the types of beneªts they derive from PAC services. Four types of perceived beneªtsemerge in the study: increased information, stronger relationships, better learning opportunities, and easier transactions. In addition, some negativeconsequences are identiªed. Findings question the notion that PAC has a di-rect impact on development by offering access to jobs, agriculture, health,employment, or other development resources. Rather, we suggest that PAC can have an indirect contribution to development by offering users beneªts, such as easier access to more information and communication resources,better social connections with friends and family, and increased opportunitiesfor education and learning.
Introduction
Information and communication technologies (ICT) have great potential tocontribute to community development, especially for local communities,the underserved, and marginalized populations (Unwin, 2009; War-schauer, 2003). Nonetheless, inequalities in access to ICT, also collectivelycalled the “digital divide,” are a reºection of existing social, political, andeconomic divides in society; access to ICT alone does not change the rela-tionships of inequality in society. In Toyama’s words, “technology—nomatter how well designed—is only a
magniªer of human intent and capacity.
It is not a substitute” (Toyama, 2010, original emphasis). Equita-ble access, effective use, and social appropriation of ICTs are needed ifthey are to become tools that contribute to community development.
1. This research was conducted at the University of Washington Information School, in partnership with Icesi University (Cali) and Fundación Colombia Multicolor (Bogotá), Colombia. The author acknowledges the valuable contributionsfrom graduate students Luis Baron, Phil Fawcett, Joel Turner, Monica Barba, Sarah Caldwell, Patty Northman, and Carlos Chavez in data coding, analysis, and comments on early drafts of this article.
© 2012 USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism. Published under Creative Commons Attribution-Non Commercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unportedlicense. All rights not granted thereunder to the public are reserved to the publisher and may not be exercised without its express written permission.
Volume 8, Number 3, Fall 2012, 19–33
 
People in marginalized and underserved commu-nities in developing countries frequently lack themeans to purchase and maintain their own comput-ers and Internet access. To serve broader sectors ofthe population, government and nongovernmentalinitiatives for digital inclusion have set up publicaccess computing (PAC) programs, such as initiativesto put computers in libraries or community tele-centers (nonproªt venues that offer computer accessas a contribution to community development). Inaddition, Internet cafés or cybercafés (for-proªt busi-nesses that offer public access computing and otherrelated ICT services) are increasingly common indeveloping countries. Even though cybercafés arenot primarily intended to serve development goals,they can also make unintended contributions tosocial and economic development. These three typesof venues have unique features, as well as sharedcharacteristics, that contribute to PAC services in thecountry. There are differences in the location, fees,services, and goals of each type of venue, and usershave a choice among them. This paper explores thefollowing questions: What are the users’ perceptionsof impacts, both positive and negative, of PAC initia-tives in the country? How do these venues contrib-ute to community development?Many researchers have studied telecenters fordevelopment, some have studied computers inlibraries in developing countries, and a few havestudied cybercafés and their contributions to com-munity development. Very few have studied thewhole offering of PAC services, including libraries,telecenters, and cybercafés. Furthermore, there wasa period of euphoria about ICT and telecentersaround the turn of the 21st century, followed bymuch cynicism after the realization that it wasdifªcult to assess PAC’s impact on development.Such tangible impacts as improved jobs, income,health, and education have been elusive, and it isdifªcult to establish ICT interventions or PAC as theircause. In the last few years, some have dismissedPAC and euphorically embraced mobile phones as anew panacea for development (Heeks, 2009).Rather than dismissing PAC to seek a new holy grailin mobile phones, we suggest reframing the expec-tations of the contributions of PAC to communitydevelopment by establishing a better understandingof their potential beneªts, from the users’perspective.In 2008–2010, we conducted a large study ofthe landscape of PAC in 25 developing countriesaround the world (Gomez, 2012).
2
That studyshowed the importance of looking at the wholeecosystem of PAC initiatives, analyzing libraries,telecenters, and cybercafés in terms of equitableaccess, human capacity, information relevance, andpolicy environment. Colombia was one of the coun-tries included in that study, and the landscape ofPAC was found to be fairly typical compared to theother countries in Latin America and around theworld, except for two unique features: 1) Colombiais one of only two countries in that study (SouthAfrica is the other) with a strong, dual system oftelecenters, including some set up by governmentagencies and others by nonproªt organizations. Inthe case of Colombia, they are both operating withsome degree of success, and they collaborate witheach other in many parts of the country. 2) Colom-bian libraries appear to be uniquely strong, as theyhave twice received an international award from theGates Foundation (Access to Learning Awards
3
forBogota in 2002 and Medellin in 2002); nonetheless,the success of these libraries in large cities has yet toreach the rest of the country, where only about16% of libraries in the country offer PAC (this per-centage is very close to the overall average of 14%for all 25 countries). The Colombia component ofthe Landscape Study was the least detailed of the25 countries investigated.
4
We therefore conductedadditional ªeldwork in 2010 to complement the ear-lier ªndings. In this study, in addition to collectingmore detailed data on the landscape of PAC in thecountry, we included an exploration of the perceivedimpact of PAC among users. Bearing in mind theparticularities of the Colombian PAC landscape men-tioned above, ªndings from this in-depth study canbe used as a point of reference to understand, com-20
Information Technologies & International Development 
USERS’ PERCEPTIONS OF THE IMPACT OF PUBLIC ACCESS COMPUTING IN COLOMBIA
2. Algeria, Argentina, Bangladesh, Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Egypt, Georgia, Hondu-ras, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Malaysia, Moldova, Mongolia, Namibia, Nepal, Peru, Philippines, South Africa,Sri Lanka, Turkey, and Uganda. 3. http://www.gatesfoundation.org/ATLA4. All detailed country reports are publicly available at http://faculty.washington.edu/rgomez/projects/landscape
 
pare, and contrast the uses and impacts of PAC inother developing countries.
5
To study PAC services in Colombia and under-stand their perceived beneªts from the perspectiveof the users, we conducted ªeldwork using bothqualitative and quantitative methods in libraries,telecenters, and cybercafés in different towns andcities of the country during the ªrst half of 2010.The intent was to better understand barriers, oppor-tunities, and impacts of PAC for the social and eco-nomic development of Colombia’s underservedcommunities. These ªndings represent user experi-ences and perceptions in different kinds of PAC ven-ues around the country. The ªndings also offerinsight into the kinds of beneªts (and negative con-sequences) that users perceive to be most signiªcantto them. Through a better understanding of thePAC services and the way users perceive the beneªtsthey derive from them, these ªndings can informPAC policy and program implementation in order tocontribute more effectively to social and economicdevelopment of underserved communities, both inColombia and in other developing countries aroundthe world.
Background
A dozen years ago, there were only a few PACexperiences around the world, mostly limited to asmall number of international donor-funded “multi-purpose community telecenters (MCT),” notably inUganda and Mali; a few “civic telecenters” precari-ously operating in schools and libraries in differentcountries; a few “basic telecenters” set up by localnongovernmental organizations (NGOs); a couple of“telecenter franchises,” centrally coordinated butlocally owned telecenters, as in South Africa andPeru; and a handful of cybercafés in wealthy neigh-borhoods and shopping malls of many capital citiesand tourist towns. In only 12 years, these few, earlyPAC experiences have multiplied and spread aroundthe developing world, sponsored by developmentagencies, governments, and nonproªt organizations.Privately owned cybercafés, run as for-proªt busi-nesses, have grown even faster.The global interest in telecenters by developmentagencies and scholars grew dramatically with theturn of the century: Numerous articles related totelecenters for development appeared in peer-reviewed journals, institutional reports, and otherpublications early in the decade (some of the mostoften cited such articles include Benjamin, 2001;Etta & Parvyn-Wamahiu, 2003; Gomez & Hunt,1999; Proenza, Bastidas-Buch, & Montero, 2002;Roman, 2003). Special issues focused on telecentersor public access computing were published by sev-eral journals relevant to the ªeld of ICT for develop-ment: The
Journal of Development Communication
(
 JDC, 12
(2), 2001) and the
Electronic Journal of Information Systems in Developing Countries
(
EJISDC, 4,
2001) offered early analyses oftelecenters. For the most part, they focused on whytelecenters were not working and how to improvethem. Five years later, the
Journal of Community Informatics
(
 JoCI, 2
(3), 2006) dedicated an entireissue to telecenters. In 2006, the majority of thestudies were still trying to ªgure out how to maketelecenters work better, given limited infrastructure,awareness, services, and use. Two Colombian casestudies (Amariles, Paz, Russell, & Johnson, 2006;Parkinson & Ramirez, 2006) found limited evidenceof telecenter use. Even though there is importantresearch about public access computing in librariesin the United States (Bertot, McClure, Thomas,Barton, & McGilvray, 2007; Gibson, Bertot, &McClure, 2009), including a recent and ambitiousstudy that assesses (for the ªrst time) the socialbeneªts of public access computing in the UnitedStates (Becker et al., 2010), there are relatively fewstudies of PAC in public libraries in developing coun-tries (Gould & Gomez, 2010; Walkinshaw, 2007).Cybercafés have also been relatively understudied asa social phenomenon, with some noteworthy excep-tions that have explored their potential contributionto community development (Finquelievich & Prince,2007; Gomez, Pather, & Dosono, 2012; Gurol &Sevindik, 2007; Haseloff, 2005; Salvador, Sherry, &Urrutia, 2005).A recent and exhaustive literature review on ICTimpact suggests the following:There is limited conclusive evidence on down-stream impacts of public access to ICTs. The evi-dence that does exist suggests that the publicaccess ICT model is not living up to the expecta-tions placed on it. This is not necessarily because
Volume 8, Number 3, Fall 2012
21
GOMEZ
5. For a more detailed comparison of PAC in Colombia versus the other countries included in the Landscape Study, seeGomez (2009), in particular, pages 32–34, which focus on Colombia.

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