Friday, March 22, 2013

Telecentres and Personal ICTs: Complementary, not exclusive roles

When beginning this project I hadn't put much thought into the role of telecentres in promoting or enabling the use of low cost ICTs for agricultural communities of practice.  However, a recent conversation with community informatics expert Michael Gurstein led me to begin thinking about a complementary role between personal ICTs such as mobile phones and radio receivers, the potential for a well organized telecentre to support capacity building for individuals who might want to lead a local knowledge mobilization initiative.

As often happens, once an idea is brought to attention it feels like you begin to see bits and pieces of it everywhere you look.  In this case a timely email from my colleague Helen Hambly, who forwarded something from no other than Michael Gurstein on some thriving telecentres in Fiji, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka.

That bit of information was interesting but what really got me excited was to discover this organization, which runs a resource-rich website on global telecentres.  Looking through that site, I discovered an interactive map of telecentres around the world.  When clicking on the Sri Lanka icon it tells me there are some 532 telecentres in that country.  Zooming in on the country reveals individual icons for what appears to be hundreds of telecentres scattered throughout Sri Lanka, along with some brief contact details.

At this point in time I can't be sure how reliable or useful this resource will be but in coming across it, I'm starting to think that these telecentres are an important component in our strategy to build local capacity for digital innovation in agricultural communities of practice.  I'm somewhat aware of the criticisms of telecentres (no one goes there, the equipment is often outdated, infested with viruses, or difficult to use), but I'm also aware of the fact that in a resource-constrained context, they represent a physical location with assets that could support a lead user or group of lead users (or 'technology stewards' in the Communities of Practice language), could set up an instance of FrontlineSMS, Ushahidi, or FreedomFone.  Access to a reliable power source, secure server space, a broadband Internet connection, and simply a place to gather and share knowledge with other technology steward-types might be an important component in an overall strategy that otherwise places emphasis on personal mobile devices in the hands of the community.

The project team might do well to spend some time considering the telecentre situation in Sri Lanka as a key component in our partnership development activities.  Maybe we ought to spend some time visiting a few of them during our next visit too.

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