A telecenter is not a telecentre is not a cybercafe

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I was in India just before the holidays, invited by IDRC to participate in a workshop on ICT4D research within Asia. Well-planned timing put the workshop just before and after the 2nd annual ICTD conference which we all attended as well. There were a terrific bunch of folks there, both from institutions and NGOs throughout Asia as well as a variety of researchers from the US and Europe. It was great to spend time with Richard Heeks, Arul Chib, Jack Qiu, Rich Ling, Gina Hechanova, Chaitali Sinha, Jonathan Donner, John Traxler, Padma Rani, Ang Peng Hwa and many others.

The ICTD conference was a great opportunity to run into the far flung and multi-disciplinary group of folks who do work in this area. And in somewhat shameless fashion, I invited myself along on an afternoon of site visits to telecenters that some folks from the Microsoft Unlimited Potential program had arranged. The afternoon was, to say the least, enlightening.

I’ve visited telecenters in many countries: Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Kenya, Cambodia, Philippines, Hong Kong, and, well, lots of others. I’ve always been somewhat puzzled by how people talked about telecenters in India. I knew there was a strong instrumental focus and often an emphasis on e-government initiatives and telecenters, and also often a lack of discussion of the public gathering space function telecenters can serve, or the open-ended exploration with technology that can happen within them.

But once I’d piled into a couple cars with a handful of folks and driven a few hours outside of Bangalore, all became much clearer.

The first center we visited was in a small town outside of Bangalore. Lots of commerce surrounded the area, and government offices were located close by.

The inside of the center is a little sparse. At the front desk there is a computer and printer where the operator does her work. She provides government documents for clients in a one-stop shop format which eliminates the need for citizens to visit multiple offices and, perhaps, pay multiple fees.

Then we drove to a second center, this one in a village. Driving along the highway is a typical mix of tradition and technology.

We pulled up to the center

and parked, looking across the street we see the telecenter which is a room rented from a largish house in town.

This telecenter had a solar panel that was designed to provide electricity in case the grid went down, although it wasn’t the main source of electricity.

But as public space, the telecenter wasn’t a community gathering place, nor are any in this network that is run by a company that focuses on providing government services to people in a one-stop-shop situation. There are other kinds of telecenters in India, but this network is a large one with hundreds of centers, and seeing these sites first hand made clear many of the assumptions embedded in how people talk about technology initiatives in rural communities.

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