Public Computing Centers: Beyond 'Public' and 'Computing'
38 Pages Posted: 30 Mar 2013 Last revised: 16 Aug 2013
Date Written: August 15, 2013
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.
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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