On May 13-18 I spent a week with Ari Katz of IREX in the Philippines conducting a library assessment visit as part of the Beyond Access campaign, a global initiative to advance the role of libraries in development.

The Philippines brims with potential. It has a large number of libraries (around 1,200 though for complicated reasons a number of these may not exist), and there are no shortage of examples of librarians doing exceptional work in their communities. The country has a strong commitment to literacy, education, and ICTs. At the same time, libraries have much room for improvement. Most of the facilities and collections are outdated. There aren’t enough trained librarians. Their budgets swing in accordance with the priorities of local elected officials. Very few libraries have computers or Internet.

What is needed to modernize the Philippines library system? A few thoughts based on our visits.

Better coordination of government programs. The Philippines has made providing public access to ICTs a priority for many years…it’s just that libraries have not been included in these programs. The major one is the Philippine Community eCenter Network (PhilCecNet), an effort that dates back to 1999, and there are a plethora of others—e-Barangays, e-government CECs, Farmer Information and Technology Centers (FITS), eSkewala centers (for out-of-school youth), among others. There is clearly opportunity for libraries to become involved in these initiatives. In fact, PhilCecNet chairman Dr. Angelo Ramos, welcomed Ari’s very practical suggestion to make libraries aware they are eligible for CeC support. Apparently, there are some libraries among the over 800 CeCs nationwide, but this seems to be more by accident than design. The government can and should do more to realize they have this tremendous potential resource.

A changed mindset. At the same time, library’s need to take greater initiative to take advantage of the opportunities before them. The CeC program is heavily promoted and enterprising libraries could have joined in greater numbers. The government invited the national library to be part of the just completed Digital Philippines national strategy, but it declined. On a personal level, I found it curious that few, if any, of the people we had pre-arranged appointments with had bothered to look at the Beyond Access campaign website. If they had, they would have seen there are opportunities for travel and project funding, not to mention it is backed by the Gates Foundation’s Global Libraries program. That said, all of the librarians we met, from the director of the national library to the remote public library, expressed genuine enthusiasm in the campaign’s aims and, as mentioned, we met some terrific library leaders. It’s just that there activities seem confined to within their familiar library world, with little outward reach to other programs in the Philippines, much less an to an initiative on the other side of the world. I’d like to see some smart programs designed to raise the awareness about external opportunities and how libraries can tap into them. In part this means libraries learning ‘development speak’ and how other institutions approach community development.

Libraries as part of a region plan. The one place that best exemplified the possibilities for libraries to be more tightly involved in community development efforts was Davao, the major city on the southern island of Mindanao. We met with the city librarian, the mayor’s officer-in-charge (the mayor was out of town), and the president of ICT Davao, the industry association. Clearly these people work together closely, and they have big plans for Davao, including a new 3-story library with an entire floor for public access computers. The library computers fit into a regional strategy to grow the number of people with ICT skills to feed the burgeoning BPO sector. While this sector is more heavily tilted towards call centers at the moment, they foresee opportunities for more value-added jobs. It was inspiring to witness the enthusiasm and take-charge attitude (which they attribute to being far away from Manila and, as such, more self-reliant). When I described the innovation center concept (e.g. iHub) as a way to attract and nurture entrepreneurial talent, we started talking about dedicating a part of the library’s ICT floor to this. Ari too writes about how Davao’s libraries can contribute to the region’s IT aspirations.

For more about the trip, read Ari’s posts about libraries and incentives, the salon discussion, and rural libraries.


At this year’s Peer Learning Meeting, an annual gathering of grantees of the Gates Foundation’s Global Libraries program, I organized a session on “Learning from outside the library.” I’m a big proponent of ideas that flow across institutional types or our typical ways of thinking. The more we’re exposed to ideas outside our normal routines and communities, the better.  The opening keynote couldn’t have been a better set up for my session. Sarah Houghton, aka Librarian in Black, urged the library grantees to look to businesses, technology trends, and other non-library sources for inspiration on what libraries should offer their communities.

My session featured seven NGOs. Five serve local Seattle communities; one is a Seattle-based NGO with programs in Africa and Asia; and one operates in India.  The session started with each representative giving a 2-minute pitch, followed by an hour for participants to rotate among stations for in-depth discussions. Here are brief overviews of the programs, as provided by their representatives, or cobbled together based on my own notes.

Discussion at one of the learning stations

Laura Enman, EdLab Group. Virtual Pop-Up Books – Engaging youth in 3 Dimensions. Using innovative and easily available technology, you can make your imagination come to life in a virtual pop-up book.  With the use of new barcode-like technology and simple webcams, you can design 3D characters, buildings and other images that will “pop-up” when their barcode appears on a page.  This activity teaches about 3D modeling, digital literacy, and simple math concepts in geometry and scale.

Malory Graham, Reel Grrls.  In this presentation you will learn how young women in the Pacific Northwest are being trained in digital storytelling skills to get their voices heard. You will learn about the unique mentoring model used by Reel Grrls to partner girls with adult women filmmakers to produce engaging new films. You will hear about successful strategies for using media production to get girls inspired by technology programs and view samples of inspiring youth-produced videos made in the Reel Grrls program.

Jason Hahn, Grameen Foundation, Community Knowledge Worker program.     For poor farmers in the developing world, a crop failure can be catastrophic, putting already marginalized families at risk of disease, malnutrition and financial ruin. Grameen Foundation’s Community Knowledge Worker (CKW) program uses mobile phone applications and human networks we have developed to provide poor farmers with relevant, timely agricultural information, including caring for animals, planting crops, treating pests and diseases, and getting fair market prices for produce and livestock. This information helps farmers improve their lives and livelihoods by increasing their productivity and income.

Geeta Malhotra, READ India.  Rural Education and Development (READ) in India is having a mission of setting up of Community Libraries and Resource Centres.  This presentation will focus on READ’s computer programs, including: community radio; SMS service for spreading legal awareness; youth literacy; collaboration with India’s Common Service Centers; livelihood trainings with solar lanterns; reproductive and adolescent health education, and; videos-based education for women on issues of domestic violence, workplace safety, and elder abuse.

Sarah Stuteville, Seattle Digital Literacy Initiative.  The Summer Institute of the Seattle Digital Literacy Initiative is a five-day intensive media production and digital literacy program for Puget Sound-area youth ages 13 to 19, hosted by the University of Washington’s Department of Communication.  The program targets low-income youth from diverse backgrounds throughout the Puget Sound, and is led by a team of educators with journalism, media production, and youth development backgrounds. Students earn the basics of photography, interviewing, audio recording, storytelling and video editing through creating their own audio slideshows, which are then published on the youth-run blog Puget Sound Off.

Chris Tugwell, Metrocenter YMCA Youth Tech.  YTech is not your traditional “technology” program. Young people are creating digital media, engaging in civic debate, and learning the skills and confidence needed to compete in the 21st century. Learn how young people launched Teens Against Distracted Driving and Seattle TEA (Teens Engaged Afterschool), and other cause campaigns using PugetSoundOff.org, a local, innovative website providing young people opportunities to Connect, Collaborate, and Take Action.

Hassan Wadere, Horn of Africa Services.  Horn of Africa Services (HOAS) serves Seattle’s East African immigrant community. This session will focus on innovative techniques that connect East African parents and youth through technology, and a program that helps underserved youth understand the vitality of voicing concerns through digital media.

There was great energy in the room and feedback on the session was very positive. Thanks to everyone who participated.

For a long while I’ve been thinking about the value of physical place when it comes to people interacting around technology for entrepreneurial purposes.

Last week I visited the iHub, Nairobi’s famous innovation hub where local technologists, designers and researchers come together to work, for events, and hang out. While there, I had the pleasure of chatting with iHub research lead Jessica Colaco who explained a project they are working on regarding the different stages of hub evolution. Jessica calls Liberia’s iLab stage 1, the iHub stage 2, and a regional cluster or city-wide ecosystem like Hyderabad stage 3.

iHub researcher explains the innovation center evolution concept

In addition to these intentional examples, I’ve observed a growing number of community technology centers and libraries that are playing similar roles as the stage 1 example—though not be design.  In the past year I’ve visited numerous public access venues in Bangladesh, Chile, Philippines, and Kenya. In each location I learned how many of these center’s heavy users are small business operators, independent BPO contractors, and other techie and non-techie entrepreneurs who are using these spaces as their offices. They are individuals, small groups who meet at pre-arranged times, and ad-hoc gatherings of people who come to a place because they know they’ll run into other folks with whom they can share ideas, get tips, and otherwise be in a space that fosters creativity and holds out the possibility of learning something new.

The community center examples are more appropriately characterized as co-working spaces, a concept Christine Prefontaine clued me into that sparked my interest in this. Read her posts for more about this movement. My feelings are best summed up by Clay Shirky, quoted in a NYT article about a co-working space in Brooklyn — “we systematically overestimate the value of access to information and underestimate the value of access to each other.”

Co-working spaces are close cousins of innovation hubs. What does this mean for libraries and telecenters? I agree with Christine when she says it can be a significant opportunity for such community centers. Others think so too. Seth Godin writing on libraries — “The next library is a place…where people come together to do co-working and coordinate and invent projects worth working on together.” In a chat with Richard Atuti, director of the Kenya National Library Service, he volunteered stories of this type of use with my only asking him what recent trends he’s observed in Kenyan libraries.

However, a physical place does not necessarily become a space where creative work and innovation occur. Design matters, along with services, rules and community. iHub founder Erik Hersman explains what makes the iHub work, and if the telecenter/library community wants to foster co-working and innovation at scale I believe it will need to be intentional about it, taking active steps to foster this type of use. They should learn from the proliferation of innovation labs, hubs, coalitions (like Afrilabs), and from research such as iHub’s own just launched 3-year study on the evolution of innovation spaces, and Georgia Tech’s Mike Best who is conducting a study in Ghana titled collaborative knowledge sharing as part of our Global Impact Study. Among other things, this study is undertaking formal experiments to assess how changes to the physical space and the introduction of sharing technologies affect the usage and outcomes of an Internet café’s visitors.  Early findings are encouraging.

I think there is something important going on, and with focused attention there are huge opportunities to enhance the co-working, and innovation activities in community centers.

Last month I attended a conference on Youth, Partnerships, Employability: From Innovation to Scale, hosted by the International Youth Foundation. I moderated a session on “The role of technology in helping youth at risk gain access to information, skills and resources.” This session centered on a presentation by Javier Lasida who had conducted an evaluation of IYF’s Entra21 program. Javier’s findings echo many of ours at TASCHA, and in summing up the session I made the following seven points about successful youth technology programs.

1)  Technology has become a threshold skill when it comes to job seeking. Employers expect you to have basic skills, whether or not they are used in the actual job. In TASCHA’s Latin America research, for many youth the certificates they received in training programs were very important in establishing their credentials to potential employers (p. 66).

2)  Technology is a hook. In this same research, we found technology (23%) is second only to sports (26%) in drawing youth away from violence (p. 41).  There’s an aspirational, 21st century quality about technology that people want to be part of.

3)  The best youth programs treat technology as a “21st century basketball” as TASCHA research Joe Sullivan calls it. They make it fun and engaging, not like a formal classroom activity. The lunchtime showing of the video created by Jamaican youth was a perfect example. The youth learned technology skills to produce the video, and it was on a subject that engaged them. Joe’s research on Boys & Girls Clubs found similarly meaningful activities—digital arts competitions, blogging, music videos, etc.

4)  While technology is the hook, it is the non-tech benefits that are often as or more important. Teamwork, positive relationships with adults, confidence and self-esteem, for instance, are all skills that youth (especially those at-risk) need.

5)  Social networks are key. Javier’s main finding was that social networks were essential for connecting youth with both trainers and employers. Entra21 used both human networks (community managers visited and developed relationships with potential employers in the communities), and social media (Facebook) to nurture the networks. I would underscore the importance of f2f networks…too often overlooked with all the attention on Facebook, Twitter, etc. TASCHA’s research on immigrant women in Europe makes this point as well.

6)  Importance of social spaces. This is particularly important for at-risk youth since physical centers also provide a safe space from violent life on the street.  Javier found that learning in a group setting was very important to the success of the program.

7)  The people. Arguably the most important point. From vulnerable populations to people who are simply not familiar with technology, it is people (community managers, trainers, librarians, infomediaries, etc.) who play an essential role in assuring that the intended beneficiaries actually benefit from technology programs. In Entra 21, community managers and trainers created a nurturing learning environment for the youth, made connections with employers, and all around functioned as coaches and mentors. ICT4D’s infatuation with the latest mobile app is cool, but we consistently find that people make the difference.

The 3rd Global Forum on Telecentres was held 5-7 April, 2011 in Santiago Chile.  After having been to the first two events (WSIS Tunis in 2005 and GK3 Kuala Lumpur 2007) there was both a continuation of some topics (sustainability anyone?), and some new ones (employability, climate change, indigenous peoples).  Unfortunately, from my perspective, the format — 10 minute presentations from a dark stage in front of 200 people — left almost no time for discussion and made everything very formal and superficial. This was unlike the previous two forums that fostered true networking and exchange of ideas in an informal, small group environment. So one had to really seek out the people doing interesting work and catch them during the short coffee breaks.

With that rant over, one of the more interesting trends I noticed was the number of people who said they were all in favor of the telecenter movement for what it represented, but who said they don’t consider their organizations as “telecenters” per se.  Libraries are the most obvious example of this. The telecenter movement likes to claim that libraries are one of them, but the library people I spoke with aren’t quite sure it’s something they want to be associated with. This issue came to a head in the final session during the vetting of the declaration . When Catalina Escobar, from an NGO in Colombia, pointed out that libraries weren’t mentioned the Telecentre.org Foundation representative on the stage (yes, the darkened one) suggested a footnote be added saying that telecenters include libraries along with other types of public access venues, a gesture that only exacerbated the problem of tying to brand telecenters and nesting one type of venue within another. Most NGOs that offer technology access with which I am familiar also do not consider themselves as telecenters, so I think this naming issue will continue to be problem.

The session that seemed to generate the most excitement was the one on the role of telecenters in disaster management: the Chilean case after the 2010 earthquake.  The allotted 45 minutes turned into 1.5 hours, and an informal working group was formed to carry this forward. This is a topic TASCHA has been part of, and our student Beth Patin was one of the panelists.

Finally, I participated on a panel discussing impact. I prepared a slide deck but at the last moment we changed the format to a PowerPoint free discussion, a welcome relief from the rest of the conference. One of the points I conveyed is that while the practitioner community (not surprisingly) believes telecenters are largely successful and having impact, the academic community is not as kind (see TASCHA paper on this). So one of two things is happening — either telecenters are indeed not having an impact but we turn a blind eye to this, or the research is not capturing the real impact due to methodological and other challenges. As a researcher directing a large-scale study on this topic–the Global Impact of Public Access to ICTs–I’m probably more in the latter camp, but we’ll see for sure when we finish analyzing the data from this five-year study.

If 10% of the people who come into a telecenter receive help with computers from the staff person, is that considered sufficient impact?

I just returned from Chile with our infomediary research team and after visiting several telecenters, libraries and cybercafés I feel that the development field under-appreciates the benefits that come from the 10% of internet uses that rank far behind email, social networking, and playing games.

Let’s play this out. Alexi, a manager at one telecenter we visited in Traiguen, says he gets 50-60 people per day, helping on average 6 to 10 of them complete whatever task they came to do. That’s 300 to 500 assists per year in a town of under 20,000 (admittedly many are repeat users). One area where he helps a number of people is registering on the ChileCompra website, a government procurement program aimed at small and medium sized businesses. Alexi says many of the small business owners don’t know how to use computer so he helps them through the process, showing them how to bid for a public contract. He doesn’t track how many succeed, but knows anecdotally that many do because they come back and bid on new projects and tell him about their past successes. Alexi also helps people with their resumes, set up bank accounts, comparison shop, make Skype calls, and a myriad of other tasks, many of which I observed during my two-hour visit (e.g. three mothers came in with their high school aged children to set up bank accounts, a requirement to qualify for a college scholarship). Yes, most visitors of telecenters are young, use the computers for social networking and other tasks we typically place under the category of communications and leisure, and don’t need the type of assistance that Alexi provides, but if we are serious about reaching people in need should we dismiss what happens with the 10% of users and activities just because they show up at the lower end of our frequency graphs?

This tendency to expect more productive uses of ICTs among underserved populations reflects a double standard. In the west we don’t expect the majority of our internet uses to be for so-called productive purposes. We surf, email friends, and download music, and while we could all probably do without the internet for much of this, each of us could point to examples (let’s say 10%) where the absence of the internet would severely impact our lives. So why when we assess an ICT and development project do we look at 10% of uses and conclude that the investment is not being properly utilized and deem the program a failure?

Part of the problem is methodological, for which we researchers are to blame. I believe we are making a mistake by comparing uses that are regular in nature with those that are episodic. A typical survey asks people to state how frequently they use the internet for email, social networking, health, employment, education and so on. When people report (unsurprisingly) that they do email every day and use the internet for employment related activities infrequently, we conclude that the importance of the internet is greater for the former. And, since the everyday activities are typically associated with unproductive or non-developmental purposes, we then conclude that impact is minimal and the program unworthy of public support. This is an erroneous conclusion in my mind because it mixes regular with episodic activities. Thank goodness I don’t need to use the internet weekly for employment or health related purposes. But if or when I need to find a new job or learn about some disease I’ve caught I’ll be glad I have the internet. The methodological remedy I propose is to stop comparing regular with episodic uses. It leads to such conclusions as 10% representing failure.

Over the past 1.5 days I had the privilege of attending Harvard Forum II: ICTs, Human Development, Growth and Poverty Reduction. Convened six years after the first event, HF2 was convened to allow the (mostly) same 20 participants to reflect on what has changed since 2003 and what they believe are the most important trends and issues confronting the field of information technology and human development. The opportunity to sit with Nobel laureates Amartya Sen and Michael Spence, and other ridiculously smart people was an incredible treat to say the least. The event was sponsored by IDRC, the Berkman Center hosted the event, and Global Voices provided blogging, tweeting, session summaries, and webcasting (Ethan and team are amazing so follow the links to learn everything that transpired).

Which allows me to offer a couple of highlights from my perspective:

Hearing non-ICTD folks talk about ICTD
The views of Sen, Yochai Benkler, Michael Smith and other HF2 participants are centrally relevant to the role of ICT in development, and yet they are not the ones who attend ICTD conferences or publish in ICTD journals. To be fair, there are ICTD scholars who build on the work of Sen, but otherwise this workshop offered yet more evidence that the field has to do better at reaching out to those who don’t self-identify with “ICTD.”  I’m not sure of the solution. On the one hand we need to do more work to legitimize and raise the profile of ICTD, but on the other hand the term has a tendency to make us seem like an exclusionary club.  In any event, I came away very stimulated by the perspectives these people brought to our discourse. All participants submitted thought pieces in advance of the workshop.

Contesting the meanings of development
Between Sen’s focus on capabilities and interventions from Anita Gurumurthy, Ineke Buskens and others, a very interesting theme of the workshop addressed the benefits and limitations of the market’s role in ICTD. This was in contrast to much of today’s ICTD discourse which in my mind over privileges the market (as evidence in the current infatuation over mobile phones and making financial sustainability the litmus test for assessing the value of an ICTD endeavor).

Critically examining mobile phones
While the ICTD majority continues to leap onto the mobile bandwagon, HF2 offered up a host of questions that I completely agree require our critical examination, else we believe we can pack up and go home because mobiles and the market will take care of everyone’s ICT needs. Ethan Zuckerman made the strongest argument, which Yochai and several others echoed in various ways.  Yochai summed it up best – Mobiles offer a more decentralized and open platform than broadcast media, but they aren’t the Internet at all, and that gap between mobiles and the Internet is critical.

Again, read Ethan’s summaries. This workshop was a feast of ideas that I will be referring to again and again.