A Weekend in Texas: Public Computer Centers and More

ALANDigitalInclusionTexasApril2013

Last Friday and Saturday, I had the privilege of participating in the Digital Inclusion in Texas Conference and Colloquium held at the University of Texas at Austin. The event was a thought-provoking synthesis of practice, research, and public policy centered around projects funded by the Broadband Technology Opportunities Program (BTOP), public computer centers, broadband deployment, and related topics. The conference was steeped in Texas, but extending to Washington, D.C., and with some international flavor. Texas-based activities were featured, including Technology for All, Texas Connects Coalition, Connected Texas, and Austin Free-Net.

I was a panelist at Friday’s session on “The Future of Public Internet Access,” moderated by Kenneth Flamm (University of Texas at Austin). My fellow panelists, Jay Schwarz (Federal Communications Commission) and Laura Breeden (National Telecommunications and Information Administration), and I each interpreted the future in different ways. I took the long view, thinking of five to ten years ahead, and focusing, naturally, on the library perspective. The future of libraries is inextricably linked to the future of public Internet access—and Internet access must not be divorced from considering what digital content will be available via that access. So, yes, perhaps inevitably I strolled into the e-book licensing morass for a little while (incidentally, several people made a point of mentioning that they were not aware of the problem, but could understand it immediately when thinking through the implications of a licensing regime for books). Here are my slides (.pptx) and background notes (.docx).

Saturday had a bit more of an academic focus, formally designated as “The Gary Chapman Colloquium on Communities and Computing.” The first big panel focused on the impacts of public computer centers and featured four big academics: John Bertot (University of Maryland), Amit Schejter (Pennsylvania State University), Ricardo Gomez (University of Washington), and Sharon Strover (University of Texas, Austin). I had the pleasure of serving as moderator. Not surprisingly, it is impossible to do justice to years of research in a 90-minute session. It would be ridiculous to even attempt to do so in a blog post, so I won’t try. Instead, I urge you to take a look at their materials at the colloquium website, which represent the wide range of topics from national data and conceptual developments to public computer center case studies on Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and Colombia. In addition, the speakers’ presentations (for all sessions) will be available at this website in the near future.

Finally, I do want to mention the extraordinary presentations by the graduate students of Professors Flamm and Strover. These students engaged in a year-long research project on the use and impacts of public computer centers in several Texas communities. Core to the research effort are interviews conducted by the students. I hope that these results may be made available publicly and turned into policy advocacy materials.

Sadly, I didn’t have time to venture out into Austin, as this was a multi-stop trip and I needed to get back to D.C. so it was a fly-in, go to event, fly-out visit. But I was very glad to have made this trip to Texas to learn more about public computer centers, to make my own little contribution, and to meet some new folks and renew a few acquaintances. Many thanks to Kenneth Flamm and Sharon Strover, their staff, and graduate students for a stimulating and well-organized two days.

Alan S. Inouye is the director of the Office for Information Technology Policy (OITP) of the American Library Association (ALA). Based in Washington, D.C., he is also program manager of ALA's Digital Content Initiative. Alan completed his Ph.D. at the University of California at Berkeley.

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