From targeted digital skills coaching to providing an adapted and welcoming space for all – an IFLA-led workshop at the WSIS Forum 2021 examined good practices and key issues in leveraging public access to connect the more vulnerable or underserved user groups.

The World Summit on the Information Society Forum (WSIS) is an annual event bringing together diverse stakeholders to collaborate, exchange good practices, and create knowledge to leverage ICT for development.

As part of the Forum programme this year, IFLA organised a workshop on the role of public access to the internet and ICT in helping connect those most at risk of staying offline. Libraries have long worked to leverage public access to support equitable digital inclusion and access to information – and the session drew on these experiences to highlight good practices, key challenges and possible solutions.

Below are some of the key takeaways from the session:

A birds-eye view: public access in policy

Research by the Alliance for Affordable Internet, represented by Teddy Woodhouse, suggests that the availability of public access, and government support for public access solutions, show a consistent correlation with overall affordability of connectivity in a country.

Their publications highlight that public access is part of a comprehensive connectivity strategy. It can help generate demand for connectivity, build digital skills, and underpin a comprehensive network of connectivity points (especially for reliable, high-capacity connectivity) which users can draw on. Practical public access interventions from different countries illustrated how this can be leveraged to connect different underserved user groups.

Connecting older users – public access solutions on a wide scale

In a recent survey among public library users in Lithuania, more than 40% of older respondents living in rural areas said they do not have as many opportunities to go online outside of the library. To help connect such users, the work of public libraries with the “Connected Lithuania” project shows how public access solutions can be implemented and scaled up all across the country, as underlined by Simona Žilienė of the Lithuanian Library Association.

The project, co-funded by the EU and the Republic of Lithuania, focuses on building up users’ digital skills – particularly those from more vulnerable groups, like seniors or unemployed community members. Most public libraries have joined in since 2018, and at present around 100 000 adults have taken part and benefitted from digital skills learning opportunities in libraries. The project also saw the creation of the “community digital leaders” network, connecting more than 2 000 facilitators, many of whom are librarians.

Digital skills learning tailored for seniors

In Singapore, the National Library Board, represented by Grace Sim, has developed a multifaceted approach to supporting seniors in their digital journeys. It brings together three components – access to ICT, learning services, and spaces for peer learning and exchange.

The learning opportunities for seniors follow two strands – digital skills for life, and digital skills for work – and, in fact, libraries see a lot of interest from older users in advanced and emerging tech like AI or cloud computing. For example, 4-hour deep dive sessions about such emerging technologies for seniors attract 40-50 participants per event!

The experiences of libraries in Singapore emphasised the unique value of learning communities for senior users. There, they can learn with their peers, “demystify” tech, and explore it in a comfortable setting at their own pace – which can be particularly important for any seniors who might see digital skills learning as more intimidating or daunting.

Public access in more remote areas – towards equity and wellbeing

In Argentina, the Library of the National Congress of Argentina, represented by Isela Mo Amavet and Florencia Dalla Costa, has for many years worked with two initiatives offering remote public access: Bibliomóvil, a mobile bus, and the Sanitary Train. Both projects leverage ICT to help bring educational, cultural, and wellbeing services and events to more remote areas and locations outside of the bustling cities.

For example, the Bibliobus makes it possible to hold film screenings so that residents of more remote areas can enjoy same experiences as those who can more easily drop by a movie theater. Importantly, when preparing a visit, library professionals closely collaborate with local stakeholders to develop services and events which best meet local needs. This also illustrates the capacity of public access solutions to be tailored to local context, demand and needs.

Meaningful access to information and overcoming the gender divides – BSW’s IdeasBox4Women

Looking at another key underserved user group, BSF-Librarians Without Borders, represented by Muy-Cheng Peich, shared their experiences with working to broaden and facilitate access to knowledge and information for women.

Several years ago, BSF launched a study to better understand the gender skew in the use of their IdeasBox multimedia centers. This helped identify a range of barriers that impeded women and girls’ participation – psychological, logistical, social. BSF developed a range of interventions – from training facilitators to organising workshops that help meet women’s information needs – to address these challenges.

These experiences emphasised how important it is to identify underlying reasons for exclusion in a given context, and to tailor solutions in a way which is sensitive to and follows the lead of local knowledge, context, and culture.

Key takeaways:

  • From taking responsibility for logistical arrangements to developing tailored learning opportunities, public access facilities can be customised to meet the needs of underserved and vulnerable user groups.
  • The social element of public access can be an important benefit! Peer learning and positive role models can encourage and support users from more vulnerable groups, who may otherwise be more hesitant to engage.
  • Understanding the underlying barriers and tailoring solutions to local needs, following the lead and knowledge of local actors, helps contextualise public access solutions and initiatives. And partnerships can be a powerful tool to maximise impact!

You can find the recording of this session, as well as other WSIS Forum workshops and content, on the WSIS Forum 2021 Digital Agenda.