Generally we think of information and communication technologies (ICTs) as connecting people situated at a distance. But these technologies also can serve to connect people face-to-face in shared co-located spaces. For instance public call centers in India are sometimes situated inside or adjacent to teashops — people come together not only to make use of the communication technology but also to meet broader in-person social needs. Similarly, cybercafés, especially in low-income settings such as in Africa, connect people not only to digital networks and on to the Internet cloud but also to each other physically while they are co-located in a shared space.
The Collaborative Knowledge Sharing Study investigates the way that people share knowledge, experience, and technologies among friends and strangers while physically co-present in cybercafés. Our hypothesis is that this shared use of ICTs is in many cases preferred to individualized private use since people in public cybercafés benefit from physical interactions sharing knowledge and socializing experience with their co-present neighbors.
To examine our hypothesis we have conducted a survey of 75 computer users at a major cybercafé, Busy Internet, in Accra, Ghana. Survey participants were recruited from all computer users in the café, of majority age, during a period of four weeks across in late 2009. Our survey was designed to ascertain if these computer users connected with other people within the cybercafé — either friends, strangers, or café employees — in order to enhance their experience with communication technologies.
Survey results reveal that all respondents report interacting with café employees around technical issues. This result is, admittedly, not very surprising as simple technical issues routinely arise when using the café’s computers. More importantly, we found that more than one-third of respondents (37%) reported some deeper forms of computer sharing and collaboration with friends, family members, business associates, or even strangers while in the café.
Sharing took on different forms, for instance many respondents reported arriving together with friends or family and sitting close together while using separate machines (54%), others reported serially using a single PC one after the other (21%), still others worked simultaneously on the same machine leveraging differential levels of expertise (12%). Of those respondents reporting computer sharing, one-third reported gaining knowledge and learning from the other user as their primary reason for sharing and, surprisingly, only 18% sited purely economic reasons for sharing.
The population of respondents who reported significant or occasional computer sharing was similar in many ways to the population of users who reported never sharing. For example there was no difference in the demographics, computer fluency or experience, frequency or type of technical assistance sought, or the range of applications used between the sharing and non-sharing populations (p > 0.05 on all questions using standard statistical measure). In contrast, these two populations were different in some interesting ways. For instance the sharing population was less concerned with privacy issues than the non-sharers, typically came to the cybercafé with more people and with a different mix of people, and had generally a better view towards collaborative group work and broader forms of interaction while in the café (p < 0.01 on all questions using standard statistical measures).
Results from our survey in Accra, Ghana, suggest that face-to-face connections among people co-located in cybercafés are an important component to the experience and enhance impact. In future work we intend to explore design innovations for the computers and café environment that will enhance the best forms of collaborative work and in-person sharing.