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Sunday, September 29 • 11:10am - 11:45am
Public Computing Centers: Beyond 'Public' and 'Computing'

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Overall broadband adoption has leveled off at just under 70% in the United States, and many studies have suggested that large access and use gaps separate urban/suburban and rural/metro areas. It also seems clear that certain population groups have less ability ? and interest ? in using broadband, contributing to another type of gap. These differences could create adverse economic and social consequences for those with constraints on Internet access and training. Previous studies have analyzed the digital divide issue in terms of differences in broadband availability, digital literacy levels, the effects on race and ethnicity, the influence of social class, and the impact of spatial location (LaRose, Gregg, Strover, Straubhaar, & Carpenter, 2007; Stevenson, 2009; Flamm, 2013), and various policy responses have attempted to redress the presumed inequities associated with such divides. This paper is based on current research examining the dynamics and efficacy of one such response, namely public computing centers (PCCs). According to NTIA, PCCs are considered ?projects to establish new public computer facilities or upgrade existing ones that provide broadband access to the general public or to specific vulnerable populations, such as low-income individuals, the unemployed, senior citizens, children, minorities, tribal communities and people with disabilities? (NTIA, 2011, p. 5). Such sites were a target for funding under NTIA?s Broadband Technology Opportunities Program, initiated in 2009. The goals of our investigation are to assess the current and future roles of the public computing center model in terms of user outcomes, inter-organizational dependencies, and the shifting challenges and opportunities offered by portable and increasingly less expensive technologies (mobile phones, tablets, laptops) in an environment with increasingly ubiquitous wifi, and 3- and 4G services.

Our study investigates the operations of one of the largest of the 65 Public Computing Center grants awarded by NTIA, headed by a non-profit collaboration that established and/or augmented 90 computing centers located in three cities and several rural sites in the state of Texas, an ethnically and culturally very diverse state. The PCCs themselves typically co-located in libraries, community centers, homeless shelters, low income residential complexes, and other targeted service operations. Our research focuses on two main aspects of the program: first, the organizational challenges of mounting an effort this large, which entails working with many nonprofit initiatives simultaneously; second, the outcomes for users of the public computing facility. We have gathered data on a subset of 15 sites in both urban and rural locations using both qualitative and quantitative techniques. Our quantitative data include usage analyses of computers at the sites and browser histories that convey a sense of the Internet-based resources used by the centers? clientele; the qualitative data are based on approximately 90 interviews with staff and users at various sites as well as observations at the sites. The data examine the public computing centers? roles in their respective communities, the differences between urban and rural sites, the inter-organizational dynamics that typify social efforts to respond to (and to characterize) the digital divide, users? profiles and reasons for using the centers, and the long term prospects of public computer centers in the face of both technological changes and shifts in the political and economic environments supportive to these efforts.

We are currently completing our fieldwork and anticipate finalizing a preliminary analysis by June, 2013. Some early findings probe the utility of the brick-and-mortar, desktop computer model of the typical PCC and suggest that policy makers should (1) reevaluate precisely what such centers should be expected to achieve; (2) address the unique challenges of giving children access to these sites; and (3) recognize the heterogeneous nature of the centers, and capitalize on the community- or target user-based aspect of the most successful locations.


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avatar for Sharon Strover

Sharon Strover

Professor, University of Texas at Austin

Sunday September 29, 2013 11:10am - 11:45am PDT
GMUSL Room 329

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