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of the American Society for Information Science and Technology           Vol. 30, No. 4               April/May 2004

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Community Telecentres in Brazil

The Porto Alegre Experience: Toward Digital and Social Inclusion
by Sônia Elisa Caregnato and Ana Maria Mielniczuk de Moura

The authors are affiliated with the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, Porto Alegre, Rio Grande do Sul, Brazil. Sônia Elisa Caregnato can be reached by e-mail at caregnat@ufrgs.br; Ana Maria Mielniczuk de Moura can be reached at ammmoura@ufrgs.br

Although an educated, well-to-do and predominantly white segment of the population in Brazil is actively involved in the consumption and production of high-tech goods and services, a great proportion of the population lives below the poverty line and has no access to basic living conditions, not to mention information and communication technologies (ICT).

Internet statistics highlight such disparity. The Internet Software Consortium shows that the top-level domain name for Brazil (.br) ranked 9th in host count in January 2003 with a total number of 2,237,527 hosts, well above several other developed countries (Distribution of top-level domain names by host count http://www.isc.org/ds/WWW-200301/dist-bynum.html). Nevertheless, figures for access are considerably less encouraging. United Nations statistics estimate that 14.3 million people were online in Brazil in 2002, indicating that only 8.22% of the population were Internet users (Statistics databases: Internet users per 100 population [ITU estimates] http://unstats.un.org/unsd/mi/mi_series_results.asp?rowId=605).

If on the one hand social and economic excluded communities are largely alienated from the benefits of the digital revolution, then on the other hand digital exclusion itself intensifies social, cultural and economic exclusion. In Brazil, this understanding has been incorporated into the final document drafted by the I Workshop on Digital Inclusion (www.governoeletronico.e.gov.br/arquivos/inclusao_digital_relatorio_final.pdf), which took place in Brasilia, sponsored by the Brazilian Electronic Government Office with support from several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and UNESCO. The documents drafted during the workshop are intended to serve as a basis for digital inclusion policies in Brazil.

In order to reduce the magnitude of the digital gap, and consequently avoid intensifying the social gap, national, regional and local level governments are proposing and implementing projects for digital inclusion of the less-favored communities. In December 1999 the Brazilian Information Society Program sponsored by the Ministry of Science and Technology was launched. Through actions for integrating, coordinating and fostering the use of ICT, the Program (Sociedade da Informação no Brasil: Livro Verde [Information Society in Brazil: Green Book] – www.socinfo.org.br) attempts "to contribute, in an effective manner, to the

    • Construction of a more just society, where principles and goals are observed for the preservation of our cultural identity, based on the wealth of diversity
    • Sustainability of a standard of development that respects differences and pursues regional equality
    • Effective participation of society, the cornerstone of political democracy"
    • (p. 28 of the abridged English version)

To date, however, not many concrete nationwide actions have been taken toward the implementation of the information society in Brazil. A project to equip governmental and third-sector public libraries with computers and Internet access, as well as provide basic digital skills development to the library staff, was not implemented after a yearlong consultation process. Currently, the Ministry for Science and Technology, which took office with the president elected in January 2003, is taking steps toward the reorganization and implementation of digital inclusion programs.

While the information society has not fully come into being, citizens organize themselves at local and regional levels to pursue at a smaller – but no less important scale – the benefits of the digital inclusion. Examples of these attempts can be seen in a few shantytowns of major cities in Brazil such as in São Paulo and Porto Alegre.

Porto Alegre is a city of about a 1.4 million people, the capital of Brazil's southernmost state, Rio Grande do Sul. The city has a tradition of broad democratic participation in local government decisions, so much so that in recent years its innovative system called "Orçamento Participativo" (a direct democratic budgeting system that decides the priorities for the City's Annual Investment Plan) has been studied and copied around the world. In addition, Porto Alegre has served as the stage for the international meeting of the NGO movement, namely the World Social Forum, and has been recognized as a municipality that is strongly engaged in promoting the use of free software in all levels of its administration and public services.

In such settings, it is predictable that the community should organize itself and request that a project for enhancing digital inclusion through the setting up of community telecentres be included in the City's Annual Investment Budget. In fact, that started to happen from 2001 onwards, and to date 16 telecentres have been established in less favored areas of the city.

However, digital inclusion is not only about access to ICT, although it is an essential concern. Digital inclusion is also about skills necessary to interact with technology and with information and skills necessary to communicate and collaborate with other people over the network in order to make sense of the world around and possess the knowledge generated in the process. Opening the preamble of the official document developed by the participants of the I Workshop on Digital Inclusion mentioned above, is the following statement:

  • "To all the population should be guaranteed the right of access to the digital world, both in its technical/physical extent (sensitization, contact and basic use) and its intellectual extent (education, training, generation of knowledge, participation and creation)." (p.1)

Therefore, the community telecentres project of the municipality of Porto Alegre, besides making available basic equipment and access to ICT in public places, is also offering – in partnership with the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul – a computer and information literacy educational program aimed at empowering the monitors working at the telecentres to fully exploit the potential of the medium for social inclusion. In such a way, monitors, who are members of the community and are expected to pass on their skills to telecentre users, are facilitators who will ensure the multiplier effect of the program.

Before we expand on the educational program experience, it is important to discuss the concept of the telecentre, its philosophy and actual experience in Porto Alegre.

Telecentres

In 1998 Cisler listed several names used to describe the places that offer ICT services for individual, social and economic development: telecentres, telecottages, community technology centers, digital clubhouses, etc. (http://www2.ctcnet.org/lists/members98/0639.htm). He states that there is no agreed-upon definition for telecentres, except that each center has a physical space and access to ICT. If we are to accept such understanding as it stands, then cybercafes should be included as a type of telecentre. However, cybercafes are commercial establishments that offer access services to Internet users for a fee, without considering the type of use that is made of the technology or the information. One important element that seems to permeate the understanding of telecentres, in addition to ICT, is the idea of community. Whether the experience is in a developed country such as the United States, where the name community technology center may be more current, or in the developing world, always the word community is used to describe the philosophy behind a telecentre initiative.

In Latin America an important movement has been promoting ways of applying ICT in the region. The Somos@Telecentros is a regional telecentres network whose objective is to strengthen the digital inclusion initiatives in Latin America and the Caribbean. In a recent document that reports the state-of-the-art of telecentres in this region the network supplies a definition for telecentre. This definition encompasses the community aspect in addition to considering the economic marginalization of these communities and the power of the technology to reduce the digital divide. In her 2000 study Un ensayo de socialización de la experiencia de TELELAC de telecentros de Latinoamérica y el Caribe (www.tele-centros.org/telelac.html) Delgadillo defines it as

  • A space where people have access to and make use of ICTs as means to impact the development of their communities, improving the quality of their lives and influencing public policies to telecommunication access. Telecentres are places that offer public access to the Internet and try to accelerate this process to reach people that do not have resources to buy a telephone line or a personal computer. Facilitating access to the Internet is sought in order to reduce the enormous technological gap of many third-world countries. (p.8)

In addition, the document discusses the evolution of conceptions of telecentres, which have been applied over the years and may elucidate the present understanding of the theme or, at least, the understanding adopted in regions of the developing world. They emerged in the 1980s in the developed world as community access centers. That, in turn, brought the assumption that this type of initiative could foster third world development. However, it failed because the idea of development was one imposed from above, one that did not reflect the real needs and goals of the communities involved. Subsequently telecentres proliferated in the rich countries, mostly implemented by entrepreneurs whose objective was commercial gain. This activity established a commercial model for telecentres. Now a different option grounded in the reality and needs of communities has gained force and is trending toward implementing strategic alliances between communities and local governments with help from the private sector, notwithstanding the acknowledgment that access is a right to be provided by the state.

Perhaps the present conception is less pretentious in terms of the impacts that telecentres can have single-handedly on the inequalities of developing countries. However it in no way diminishes the impact they can have – on people's lives, on the empowerment of the particular communities and, as long as integrated into other initiatives, on development. Moreover, it is now accepted that such initiatives will only succeed if firmly grounded in people's local reality.

Owing to the diversity of experiences in telecentres initiatives, it becomes difficult to categorize them into specific models. However, based on an empirical study, Servon and Nelson (see "For Further Reading") recently proposed a helpful typology of community technology centers (CTCs), which are telecentres in our parlance. The typology is based on distinctions by organizational type and programmatic goal. With respect to organization type, the authors found there are stand-alone centers especially created to accomplish a specific mission and multi-service agencies that incorporate a CTC into their broad activities. Programmatic goal distinguishes three types of CTCs, although not in a discreet manner: those focused on providing access to technology, those concerned with training and literacy, and those engaged in creating and/or distributing content.

The typology is useful to help organize the goals of a telecentre. In the case of Brazil, the understanding is that a telecentre should provide more than just training, which is often the first and main activity actually verified. Accordingly, a definition for telecentre proposed by the I Workshop on Digital Inclusion referenced above is that "Telecentres are initiatives that make use of ICT, connected to the Internet, to guarantee public and universal access in order to promote acquisition, generation, mining and distribution of knowledge, aiming at facilitating and stimulating community participation." (p.13) Knowledge exists when individuals are able to appropriate information and transform it into experience. In order to accomplish it, the individual must be able to find the information needed, evaluate it and use it effectively. Access to, and training in, ICT skills are essential to achieve this goal. However unless they develop information skills to the point of becoming information literate, people may not be able to grasp anything but data.

The Community Telecentres of Porto Alegre Project

Community telecentre is the designation adopted in the project proposed by the local government of Porto Alegre in 2001 following demands from the organized civil society during the elaboration of the direct democratic budgeting. The community telecentres project is part of a number of initiatives to promote digital inclusion and electronic citizenship. Particularly, it aims at making available both computing equipment and Internet connection in public community places located in deprived urban areas; at developing skills necessary to make use of this technology; and at promoting the appropriation of ICT by the community.

The project is born out of the idea that access to information via ICT is a new social right and undeniably necessary to the realization of citizenship. Therefore, the state has an obligation to develop public policies to accomplish this social right. This conception, however, does not exclude the municipality from engaging partners among other institutions, governmental or non-governmental. The telecentre must not be limited to a place equipped with machines and accessories but must also become a place for the integration of the community, for stimulating solidarity, for democratization of access to information and for giving community the opportunity to improve life and work condition.

The community telecentre project is characterized by

  • A bond with a city neighborhood where the population clearly suffers from the consequences of social exclusion
  • The identification in communities of leadership and a degree of social organization
  • The community autonomy to decide about the technology applications required and the services offered
  • The responsibility of the community involved to attain sustainability of a telecentre
  • An educational program aimed at empowering telecentre monitors to fully exploit the potential of the medium for social inclusion
  • A management committee representative of the local community, the municipality, and partners.

Typically, a community telecentre includes a room in a public and easily accessible place, equipped with 12 microcomputers connected to the Internet, fax and copy machines, printer and scanner. The acquisition and installation of equipment plus the connection charges to the Internet are funded by the municipality. In addition, the local government pays the staff that should consist of an administrative coordinator and a number of monitors, all members of the local community. The community itself, however, should meet other operational costs.

The first community telecentre implemented in Porto Alegre was the Telecentre Chico Mendes. This was launched as a pilot-project on July 2, 2001, in a partnership that included the municipality and a NGO. It is located next to a park of the same name in the northeast part of the city and has as its potential users 40,000 people from the surrounding neighborhood. Among other services, the telecentre offers free access to computing services, e-mail, Internet and basic computer skills training in different sessions, from 9:00 a.m. to noon and from 1:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m., Monday to Saturday. In addition, the center is used by citizens, many of whom are not computer literate, who require access to e-government services and are able to obtain it with the help of the monitors.

Activities, resources and facilities are run by a committee consisting of community representatives and the partners involved. Monitors, presently five in number, are chosen among volunteers from the community or among youth taken out of risky situations as part of a related project known as young apprentices.

The facilities are similar to other telecentres from the local project and consist of a small two-room building, 12 microcomputers running Windows and Linux operating systems, a server, a laser printer, an ink-jet printer, a scanner, a hub, one dedicated 28.8 kbps data communication line and application software.

Challenges to the Telecentres Project

In evaluation meetings, which take place on an on-going basis and bring together all the people concerned, there are opportunities to debate the threats and opportunities encountered every day. Some of the issues that have continually been raised are highlighted below.

The first challenge to consider is self-sustainability, particularly the economic capacity telecentres should reach in order to be operationally independent. On the one hand, apart from the necessity to secure funds to cover the cost of the daily operations of the telecentre, such as buying printer cartridges and paper, it has been argued that charging affordable fees to the community can enhance the social value of services offered by the telecentres and the sense of autonomy felt by the community. On the other hand, in enormously deprived areas such as the ones where the telecentres are installed even a small contribution may be difficult to implement and may hinder the use of the center. Out of the five project sites in Porto Alegre, only one has been able actually to implement a policy of charging each family a small monthly fee for using the telecentre. The others may occasionally charge attendees for the training sessions. Considering the above experience and the desirable fundamental principles arising from the telecentre movement under which telecentres ultimately could be considered a new type of public library, perhaps telecentres, as a public good, should be entirely financed by the government, at least in developing countries where part of the population is completely excluded from the market economy. Surely no commercial enterprise such as a cybercafe would be established in places were community telecentres are located.

Another challenge identified is related to the scope of activities offered by the telecentres. All five community telecentres have a strong approach to providing basic computer skills training sessions for users, but two offer that service exclusively. Much as a broader role for telecentres has been stressed, some communities still resist providing sessions of autonomous use as opposed to training sessions. One of the reasons given by the two local coordinators in the centers offering only training is not implausible, however. They argue that by offering open sessions they may lose control over attendance and that the center may start to be occupied by drug dealers. However, if we are to fulfill the aim of knowledge creation and dissemination by the community through ICT, then we have to find ways of providing conditions for people to interact freely with the technology and find their own way through the maze of information.

In fact, the previous challenge takes us to a third challenge to the telecentres in Porto Alegre; namely, safety. Cases of well-known drug dealers using the facilities of telecentres during open sessions have already been reported. How to ensure that telecentres are safe places for children and young adults outside scheduled regular sessions is still a concern, particularly considering the increasing decay of public safety in the city as a whole and in deprived areas in particular. One of the centers is already requesting that a Citizen's Safety Committee be set up with the participation of representatives of the civil society, the police and local community associations.

Finally, a not less important challenge is related to the profile of the monitors. Although the option of having members of the community as monitors is an important and natural procedure to ensure local participation, to build self-confidence in using ICT, to create jobs in the community and to ensure the multiplier effect, it cannot be accomplished without careful planning and investment in qualification. Most of the community members present deficiencies in formal education in addition to lacking specific skills. The education program should include developing ICT skills, information literacy and people skills, as well as stimulating the furtherance of their school education.

Qualification Program for the Monitors

In 2001, when the community telecentres project started, the municipality envisioned the need for a specific project for monitor qualification and sought the partnership of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul, which is also located in the city of Porto Alegre. Specifically, the Faculty of Library Science and Communication was invited to present a project to that end. The Echos Group, which is the research and teaching body interested in the application of ICT to teaching and learning in the Faculty, was made responsible for the qualification project, which was approved and started in 2002. The teaching and research staff saw the project as a unique opportunity to integrate and share skills between the implementing group of telecentres in Porto Alegre and the library community.

The first group to participate in this educational program had 20 monitors, 12 men and 8 women. Their ages, from 18 to 45, was quite diverse. The number of years spent in education was not particularly high in the group – few of them had completed secondary school and none had a degree. The group was also diverse in terms of its members' ability to learn, previous experiences (some were in a risk situation before joining the telecentre, being now in a sort of rehabilitation process) and degree of social and political participation (some are quite well-spoken, politicized and leaders in their communities). In fact, broadly speaking, the group represents the social communities from which they come. These communities are characterized by social, economic and cultural exclusion, but also by a high degree of social organization and participation.

Permeating the educational program there were a set of assumptions about telecentres and learning such as:

  • Access and effective use of information is basic to an active citizenship.
  • Monitors are from the local community.
  • Teaching means to help the community get to know its reality and identify ways to develop itself.
  • A learning-by-doing approach is essential.
  • Knowledge should be collaboratively constructed.
  • Each monitor is an agent of digital inclusion.
  • Agents of digital inclusion aim at helping people in the process of accessing and using information and generating new knowledge.
  • The interactivity made possible by ICT is what differentiates the new media.
  • Learning is a life-long venture.

 In addition, the program aimed at enhancing the relations between telecentres and community, the management of the services of a telecentre, the application of ICT to local needs, including the production of content by and for the local community, and the creation of a network of local telecentres that also interacted with the world at large.

The program has thus far been ranked by the people involved as successful and highly rewarding for allowing the interchange of academic knowledge and practicing knowledge. However, formal evaluation of the telecentres project as a whole has not yet been undertaken and the difficulties involved should not be underestimated as Gomez and Reilly have pointed out (see "For Further Reading").

Concluding Remarks

Digital and social inclusion of marginalized communities is not going to be easily achieved by setting up of telecentres in developing countries. Several challenges have to be overcome before we can see the full realization of the potential they promise, particularly if they are to promote among excluded communities the acquisition, generation and distribution of knowledge for impacting local development. Nevertheless, people who participate in the process believe that at least in their modest way they are helping to bridge the digital and the social divide.

For Further Reading.

Assumpção, R., et al. (Org.). (2001). Relatório final da I Oficina para a Inclusão Digital. Brasília, Ministério do Planejamento. Retrieved February 16, 2004, from http://www.governoeletronico.e.gov.br/arquivos/inclusao_digital_relatorio_final.pdf

Cisler, S. (1998). Telecenters and libraries: New technologies and new partnerships. Retrieved February 12, 2004 from http://www2.ctcnet.org/lists/members98/0639.htm

Delgadillo, K. (2000). Un ensayo de socialización de la experiencia de TELELAC de telecentros de Latinoamérica y el Caribe: Compartiendo lecciones aprendidas por los telecentros y fortalecimiento de sus acciones al servicio de la sociedad civil. Retrieved February 16, 2004, from www.tele-centros.org/telelac.html.

Gómes, R., & Reilly, K. (2002). Comparing approaches: Telecentre evaluation experiences in Asia and Latin America. International information and library review, 34, 57-78,

Internet Software Consortium. (2003). Distribution of top-level domain names by host count. Retrieved January 14, 2004, from http://www.isc.org/ds/WWW-200301/dist-bynum.html.

United Nations. (2003) Statistics databases: Internet users per 100 population (ITU estimates). Retrieved January 14, 2004, from http://unstats.un.org/unsd/mi/mi_series_results.asp?rowId=605.

Servon, L. J., & Nelson, M. K. (2001). Community technology centers: Narrowing the digital divide in low-income, urban communities. Journal of urban affairs, 23, 279-290.

Takahashi, T. (Org.). (2000). Sociedade da informação no Brasil: Livro verde. Brasilia: Ministério da Ciência e Tecnologia. Available from www.socinfo.org.br. Spanish and abridged English versions also available on the site.


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