Telecentres, Public Libraries and Web literacies – the importance of technology choice (1)

by Alina Mierlus

 I’ve been thinking for a while to put this blogpost together, as I spent some time having conversations, interacting with people leading Telecentres, Civic Centres and Public Libraries. From the conversations, since one year or so ago, I started to help them discover the opportunity that open web tools and web literacies could bring in a new set of their citizen engagement programs.

 I chose to do this because, during my years as free software activist and teenager organiser, those spaces and people were the first opening the doors to help and support me with space, resources and sometimes with some advices I still remember :) . So, those spaces have been playing a very important role in growing as a community person.

 The community centres and libraries are, first of all, very local spaces (neighbourhood based usually), willing to help and offer services to community and in some cases have been the first supporters of free software. They interact with the citizen, and especially with those willing to make a difference in their neighbourhood.

 But since technology has been changing so fast during last decade (and continues to do so at an even fastest pace), the usual telecentre and public library users are finding new alternative ways to access technology and knowledge through the Internet, at their homes. I’m not saying that those spaces are not serving the civil society anymore, or whether they should radically change or close their doors (as some friends told me a while ago). Here where I live, there are still people going to public libraries when they need a quiet place to work for a few hours, there are still teens going to the telecentre (for after school activities, especially homework support), there are still young tech. and amateur communities hosting activities in civic centres, etc.

 The question is not whether those public spaces should reinvent themselves, but whether they can adapt to new demands of an increasingly connected technology. Their mission is clear: offer to the citizens access to technology in order to solve their problems (acquire basic skills, offer access to knowledge and sometimes use technology to solve social and community conflicts).

  If I’m thinking well, I see there are two areas where those public spaces could improve: technology upgrade (and here is all about choosing the right platforms and tools – a work that’s usually done by technology steward in collaboration with other staff) and participation design (or engagement activities – and that depends on the desire for change and preparation of the centre’s staff). One thing doesn’t exclude the other.

  But I want to focus more on the first, as technology choice is both strategic and long term decision making. Often, even if it could seem easier, this could be the most difficult, with some important impacts on achieving long term goals and advancing change.

  Technology *is not magic*, not easy and not only for “technical staff” – from installation, to configuration, deployment and development or maintenance, those are all steps where all the staff and community centre participants should be involved, even if the successful adoption of a technology depends in the end on the mastery and skills of the technology steward.

  Below I explain how I see spaces as telecentres and public libraries, starting from the technology they use, deploy and sometimes develop – as it is central to their objective of providing services to community and helping them solve their needs.

  • Centres where you can acquire *basic* skills. And, when I say basic, I mean understanding basic concepts (such as how to navigate safely, recognise HTML code, build a simple web page, learn how to make and share content on the web, learn how to use a social network effectively, etc.). However, other things can also be taught: more advanced concepts and programming, understanding the basic building blocks of the web and software in general, which is something that most of users need.
  • Motivating and supporting youth movements. A neighbourhood community space to support youth movements and initiatives with infrastructure and orientation sometimes. Of course, some civic centres already do this, but there are ways to do it better: use digital media for a better visibility, use open technology to better organise, grow as community builders.
  • Telecentres as Citizen Labs (championing for citizens in STEM) - finally, I think that with a bit of change in their technology adoption plan and citizen services, telecentres and public libraries could eventually play an important role in developing open innovation locally. Well, they would not compete with co-working spaces, private Innovation Labs or Universities, but they will create an opportunity space for those citizens who want to use or build technology to solve their problems but can’t afford to pay for it.

   But why do I want to start first with technology adoption (even if I don’t use to put technology on the first plan when there is a problem to solve)? Because, technology choice when comes to solving social problems, is an important decision – making process, a strategic and long term decision. Both technology choice and program building, development and evaluation are important – but having made a coherent and minimal technology choice could save time and make more space to focus on mission – social change. So, I see the whole process of stewarding technology as a priority and important step so telecentres and public libraries for adapting to today’s demands. And, as we move to web and mobile platforms, this is even more challenging.

   On the regional side, there are already centres as Raval Youth Organization who took the leadership to start deploying the Open Badges Infrastructure, or La Mina community technology centre who started using Popcorn and Thimble as part of their activities to support teens with after-school programs. Both Raval and La Mina are neighbourhoods confronting with severe social problems but, despite this, there is a huge amount of creativity and social innovation coming from those spaces (from projects as Popcorning La Mina neighbourhood to music creations or robots workshops coming from Raval).

  Another experience I had lately was with a diverse group of from La Palma de Cervelló, a village near Barcelona, who wants to take on digital literacy and build the digital corner of their village. Last year, I heard the story of how in a few months, through a collaboration between the youth organisation, the community centre and local citizens build the Open Street map of the village (including touristic offerings). A few days ago, they invited me to help them build Webmaker activities for the teens in the village. It was a fun 2 hours of etching HTML and supporting participants use some of Webmaker tools which will be followed by activities in the school and the Telecentre next month.

  But again, some downsides came from technology side: how do we use this in Catalan, how do we create a Thimble project, how do we modify the Popcorn template, how we can issue badges, what if we don’t have good internet connection?  Tools are powerful! They invite people to participate, they can even drive the whole community building activity.

  In the next blogpost I want to focus a bit on technology stewarding and technology choice as a process from a technology steward perspective. I want to go a bit back to the time when most of telecentres, civic centres and public libraries in Catalonia chose Free Software solutions as their technology of choice. There are a lot of lessons to learn from.