Friday, January 23, 2009

I Told You, I Am Doing Digital Inclusion

François Bar gave a talk today at UC Irvine about a recently launched five-year study funded by the Gates Foundation on Investigating the Impact of Public Access to Information & Communication Technology. It's a team that also includes a number of faculty members at the University of Washington, including Beth Kolko, who establishes her globalization credentials with a faculty page that opens with a Google map of her talks and projects around the world.

A Bar explained, many of the deliberative processes involved in designing the methodology of the study have encouraged stakeholders to question the basic definitions of terms like "public," "access," and "information technologies." Members of these transnational multilingual teams have apparently been successful at getting funders to put aside their pre-existing first-world biases that privilege personal computing and assume that public access in places like cybercafés and telecentres is necessarily 1) inferior and 2) temporary. (For more about grassroots telecentre communities, Bar recommends checking out

Although the initial aims of the IPAI assessment were to look at how computer centers in libraries might foster economic and educational development, the group has noted that there are many ways that the "impact" of computational technologies with distributed networks can be measured in areas that encompass civic engagement, the preservation of language and culture, the development of democracy and transparent government, and even child care and that qualitative as well as quantitative research methods need to be applied.

They also are examining many sites of heterogeneous use that include -- in the case of Bangladesh -- mobile technologies that are maintained by female repair people and local solutions such as floating libraries that go from village to village. In that country many computer centers segregate women and men in the temporal and physical space with special hours for women or machines of a designated color signifying gender on a particular side of the room. In this case, claimed Bar, restricting access actually fosters it, since many women in Bangladesh would not use such technologies at all without prohibitions on socially forbidden contacts with men in place.

After hearing about the national mania for Mister and Miss Facebook contests in Chile from Pablo Manriquez, it was interesting to hear about the success of what might be called a more promiscuous attitude about social computing in the Zeitgeist of the country. While the puritannical United States expends money and human resources policing the computers at libraries and schools with minders and screening software that often forbids access to YouTube, games, social network sites, and anything perceived as excessively "adult" or subversive, it seems that Chilean public libraries have realized the counterproductive effects of gateway technologies and laws and restrictions on youth access to the Internet and entertainment applications.

The research group's ipai wiki documents their experiences thus far in three countries: Bangladesh, Chile, and Lithuania. Images like the photograph above were taken at sessions for "information ecology mapping" in which local people explained how they might get information about important subjects like family health or agriculture. Interviewers are also studying the role of "infomediaries" who may input data into the machines for those without direct access or sufficient technical or alphabetical literacy. According to Bar, the project may also take researchers to Brazil, Botswana, Egypt, and the Philippines, as the scope expands.

As Bar notes, "rules matter." In the case of the Brazilian government, for a long time official federal telecenters barred access to the popular social network site Orkut, because these online activities were seen as mere leisure, at odds with their politically approved ideologies of labor and production. However, according to Bar, Brazil also offers many kinds of public access with many types of rules that include community centers funded by Italian labor unions and free and open source sites promoted by Gilberto Gil. During the question-and-answer session, Bar reminded those present that specific forms of sponsorship can also produce more guarded responses from informants who are fearful of seeming to work against the aims of philanthropic funders by telling researchers that they are taking part in online practices that aren't being promoted by a given public access site. For example, Bar said one young person playing an online game was particularly reluctant to explain what he was doing to a member of the study team. Finally, he used what he thought would be a verbal formulation that would legitimate his game play: "I'm doing digital inclusion."

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