Connected for Development: Information Kiosks and Sustainability
Editor: Akhtar Badshah, Sarbuland Khan, Maria Garrido
Publisher: New York: United Nations Information and Communication Technologies Task Force, 2003
Review Published: July 2005
Over the past decade, the Internet has been touted as a powerful engine that could raise living standards in poor and remote communities in developing countries by opening up new avenues for education, commerce, and participatory democracy. But the reality is a growing digital divide that is preventing the poor from sharing in the benefits of the Information Age. An approach that has been favored by several governments is to build a national network of owner-operated Kiosks with Internet access -- part cyber cafés, part digital town halls -- that earn income from a broad range of small transactions. Often referred to as "PCs-in-a-box," governments are looking at kiosks as a means of providing better service to citizens while facing the budgetary realities of having to do more with less. Similarly, the private sector has initiated with mixed results many projects in the retail, travel, financial services and health-care industries. The concept is inviting. Place these self-contained units in populated areas, make them available at least 16 hours a day and allow customers to access information at their own pace. While some kiosks are run for profit, the efforts have not been without problems.
In their introduction, Akhtar Badshah and Sarbuland Khan point out the aim of the book is to "understand the preconditions and critical components necessary for the successful use of information Kiosks for development and to learn lessons and practices generally instructive to the field from leaders of promising initiatives." And, for the most part, this aim is fulfilled, if the reader is not looking for frameworks grounded in theory. So what does Connected for Development have going for it? Its breadth, for one. Once I got beyond my preconception of what the authors were trying to accomplish, the book made a lot more sense. Rather than producing a treatise on Information Kiosks, the authors appear to have set out to inform readers of the multitude of Information Kiosks Internet-related applications in use or on the way, and to introduce the concept of examining those phenomena in light of economic development. According to the authors, telecenters have the potential to help break down some of the largest barriers to development that are presently faced by low-income populations, particularly in rural areas. Use of a telecenter can enable rural inhabitants to gain on-line access to distant productive assets and services, as well as many other participatory and networking benefits.
The book is divided into five parts. The essays in Part I, "Building an Enabling Environment for the Development of Successful Information Kiosks," covers three aspects of kiosk development by examining the role of government, building the necessary institutional partnerships, and overcoming the limitations of physical infrastructure. Francisco Proenza's "A Public Sector Support Strategy for Telecenter Development," which is based on Latin American and Caribbean Kiosks experiences, shows what could go wrong if government uses its decision rights in the diffusion of ICT. Direct selection of site and operating institutions by the state entails a risk of political meddling in the ICT diffusion process. The three remaining essays in the section were not very interesting and insightful. Ashok Jhunjhunwala's "Connecting Rural India Towards Prosperity" is probably the best essay of the section. It details how n-Logue, a firm supported by Indian Institute of Technology Madras academicians, deployed wireless Kiosk bracing the challenges of affordability, connectivity, and the problems of electrical power.
In Part II, "Characteristics for Determining Success," six loosely connected essays ranging from empowerment, community approaches, and entrepreneurship are presented. Motoo Kusakabe's "Knowledge Sharing and Capacity Building: Scaling Up Information Kiosks" and Robert Schware's "Private Sector Kiosks and Government Incentives: What Works and What is Sustainable," are probably the two most theoretically grounded papers in the whole book. Kusakabe points out that financial sustainability of the kiosks and institutional variables -- including local capacity to supports kiosks, support networks, and local entrepreneurship -- is crucial. Schware makes a common observation, especially familiar to development economists: For Kiosks to be successful in the long run, it must behave more like a private enterprise in its administration pursuing multiple service and revenue generating options. It is no surprise that most of the successful information kiosks offer several e-applications. Users gain access to traditional e-mail and Web, government services (which allows users to apply on-line for social service programs and government certificates), printer and photocopying services, and online matchmaking and astrology. Many are mundane requests for things such as birth certificates, which once would have required a bus ride and a long wait in a government office -- and perhaps a petty bribe -- but can now be handled by e-mail.
Part III, "Measuring Impact: Methodological Challenges and Evaluation Tools," was the section I was looking forward to read. Sadly, except for couple of examples in Paul Raman and Royal Collie's "Notes on Research for Telecenter Development," the readings belied my expectations. Notwithstanding the early stage of Telecenter (kiosk) development, aspiring social scientists would have benefited from discussions on the various measures of performance, limitations of using structured research instruments, ethnographical and other approaches. Experience sharing of the participatory appraisal approaches in telecenter deployment and evaluation of extensible services or offerings could have been relevant for academics and the bureaucrats evaluating such ICT experiments.
The book's fourth section, "New Approaches to Information Communication Technology for Development," presents two essays. Allen Hammond and William Kramer's "Innovations to Close the Digital Divide," like most other essays in the book, narrates Kiosk development from India, Peru, South Africa, and Bolivia. Deepak Amin's "Village Information Kiosks: A Commercial View," is an interesting essay written in a business consultant's "quick-and-easy" perspective. It highlights the market opportunities and identifies the products and services that could be offered by Kiosks.
The fifth and last section of the book, "Analysis of Selected Case Studies: Lessons from the Field," is what I liked most. This section presents twelve case studies of Telecenter (Kiosks) experiences from Africa, Asia, Eastern Europe, and Latin American. The cases detail the project summary, the intended socio-economic impacts, the model and technology chosen, and the lessons from the field. Despite the differences in social, economic, and political structures across the case settings, one observes a common theme underlying surviving and successful information kiosks. Kiosks are critically dependent on good kiosk operators. At the kiosks themselves, the single most reliable predictor of revenue appears to be the entrepreneurial capacity of the kiosk operator. So, successful kiosk projects expend a lot of resources identifying potential operators and training them.
Further, kiosks are sensitive to location and population density. Different applications make different kiosks successful. Most projects face the same operational hurdles: first, when setting up kiosks, and later, in trying to generate enough revenue to sustain themselves. Start-up costs are high: the minimum cost for a single kiosk installation is typically around $1000 -- the yearly income of a rural villager -- including both hardware and software. Infrastructure obstacles are severe: many villages only have power for a few hours a day and telephone lines to the rural population are quite low. There is no one class of applications that works at all locations, and the primary generator of revenue is government services. Adaptation to local needs is necessary if a kiosk project hopes to endure. Diversified offerings also help -- gradually; rural kiosks appear to be converging to offering a smorgasbord of applications.
In sum, Connected for Development is a compilation of the various models of information kiosks being deployed around the world. It is meant to act as a resource material for individuals and organizations entrusted with ICT implementation. Like all collections of this sort, different essays make different demands on readers in terms of their quality, knowledge, and assumptions. The ideas extrapolated from each essay are useful, readable, and refreshing, but do not expect an all-encompassing framework for Information Kiosks development.
T.R. Madanmohan is an Associate Professor of Technology and Operations at Indian Institute of Management Bangalore, India. His research interests are primarily in open source and standardardization, communities of practice and technology failures. <email@example.com>
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