Wednesday, September 13, 2006

On Community e-Centers

On the surface these community e-centers sound suspiciously like government-run Internet cafes. Is there anything underneath this program that differentiates it from your friendly neighborhood cybercafe? Please, I hope the answer isn't "free Internet access."

Internet cafes are already a fact of life in many communities. Where there is broadband access, there is likely to be an Internet cafe. Likely as not, access prices are dirt cheap, going for as low as P10 per hour. The market has, in this case, clearly and decisively stepped up to the job where government has been too slow in its response.

In the first place, community e-Centers should not compete with Internet cafes. Such a move goes against free enterprise and is quite possibly illegal. Clearly, the e-Centers differentiate have to offer services that Internet cafes do not.

Some general differentiators:

-e-Centers should focus on skills development, at the same time not limiting the scope to technical skills. e-Centers should offer programs of study that include literacy, entrepreneurship, and art. Programs could either be short entry-level familiarization seminars or long-term projects that have specific objectives on top of the skills development component.

-e-Centers should be cornerstones for local content development. A fundamental project for each eCenter should be the documentation of community life through blogs, podcasts, and vcasts.

-e-Centers should act as a spur for e-commerce, in particular, as a means of promotion for the community's products.

These are just general guidelines to what services e-Centers will offer. Ultimately, each e-Center would have to decide what projects best fit the communities that they serve.

They key to making an e-Center work would be to attract and train leaders who can organize these activities. These community leaders do not necessarily have to be government employees. They could well be volunteers coming from civil society willing to contribute their time and skills. A critical component of the e-Center project would then be the establishment of this network of leaders. These leaders must be provided with training, planning assistance, progress monitoring for their projects, and a continuity plan for when a change of personnel is required.

This PDF presentation by Kenji Saga provides some good perspectives on how e-Centers can work.