What difference does public access to information and communication technologies (ICT) make in the lives of poor or marginalized people? Years of research have yet to produce concrete evidence of impact — as found in libraries, telecenters, and cybercafés. After conducting a comprehensive review of the literature in this area, we now know that there is a pressing need for systematic and comprehensive research to identify the downstream impacts, and to provide empirical evidence about the precise link (if any) between public access ICT use and impacts in areas such as health, education, and governance. The Global Impact Study is designed to address this gap.
Based on a year of exploratory fieldwork, we have created a research design that delves deeper and wider into public access impact than other studies to date. Our main research goal is to identify the observable impacts of public access and to gauge the magnitude and costs of these impacts. Our research design highlights six areas of inquiry:
- Geographic and social reach of public access
- Usage patterns
- Physical design and layout of public access venues
- Venue services and operational conditions
- The ecology of information and communication resources within communities
- Policy and regulatory influences
We hypothesize that there is a relationship between each of these six areas and the impacts emerging from use of public access ICT.
Previous studies have focused on one or two of these areas at a time. The Global Impact Study aims to touch on all of them to some degree. Additionally, out of the numerous areas of potential impact, this project will focus on:
- employment and income
- civic engagement
- democracy and government transparency
- culture and language preservation
ICT impacts are complex and diverse, so our research design combines multiple methods to examine different types and levels of uses and impacts.
First, inventories of public access facilities in four to six countries will provide a baseline count and description of existing venues against which we can assess the magnitude of the public access phenomena, reach, and distribution. Based on these inventories, we will be able to make some basic statements about the contribution of public access to the availability of ICTs.
Second, broad-based surveys of public access venues, users, and non-users in these same countries will narrow in on issues at an intermediate level, such as why people use public access ICT venues, and how operational structures influence the outcomes venues are able to engender.
Finally, a series of in-depth studies in an expanded set of countries will investigate key impact mechanisms using different methods to provide richer data than can be collected with the general inventory and survey methodologies. Questions being investigated include:
- What is the value-added of knowledge workers such as librarians at public access venues?
- Does the ability to engage in playful uses of ICTs at public access venues contribute to public access impact?
- Do public access venues facilitate valuable forms of collaborative learning among users?
We have identified several other potential areas of research, a selection of which will be pursued over the remaining four years of the Global Impact Study. These include public access model life cycles, indirect impacts, non-users, willingness to pay, local content, employment, community information ecologies, and mobile telephony.
While this study will not exhaust these research areas, our broader goal is to lay out a research agenda that provides a common framework and vocabulary, highlights key elements, and demonstrates how researchers can build on our work to contribute findings that further develop and refine our understanding of the public access ICT puzzle. To this end, we are adopting an open research approach where our research processes, tools, data, and findings will be accessible to others.