By Ina Fried
Staff writer, CNET News
August 27, 2008, 4:00 a.m. PDT
Editors' note: This is part of a series exploring computing in Latin America.
SAO PAULO, Brazil--At one end of the trendy Cafe Aprendiz, patrons enjoy dishes such as three-cheese ravioli and salmon salad with cucumber, but it's not the food that has drawn a group of older women seated in the back. They've come for the computers.
They are part of OldNet, a program that has seniors learning computer skills from high school students at a PC lab tucked in the back of the cafe. While other diners eat and converse, a half dozen women surf the Internet, chat with friends, and send e-mail to relatives.
"These are the poster girls of the program," boasts teacher Izabel Marquez, pointing to one woman who just did her tax return and another that was the first in the bunch to get an MP3 player.
OldNet is just one part of the Aprendiz "neighborhood as school" concept put forth by Brazilian journalist Gilberto Dimenstein. Dimenstein does more than just pair old and young. A modern-day Robin Hood, Dimenstein has wealthy schools pay for their students to get the volunteer experience working with seniors while Dimenstein uses that money to pay the poorer youths who take part. There's a common denominator--all the youths who go through his programs have to go to college.
Aprendiz is not your typical digital inclusion center, but it does embrace most important characteristics of the successful ones. It has at least three key elements beyond the technology itself: a clear curriculum, community support, and a model of sustainability.
While these elements sound straightforward, they are often missing in programs that attempt to close the digital divide, whether here in Latin America or in the U.S. Hundreds of millions of dollars have been spent on digital inclusion projects in Latin America, however critics say that too many of the programs start and end with the technology.
"The computer is just 10 percent of the cost of ensuring lower income people or schools use these tools and have access to the Internet" said Maria Eugenia Estenssoro, an Argentine senator from the country's Coalicion Civica, an opposition party.
"You go to many places today and the computer lab is closed or they can't repair them or they become obsolete because they don't have a plan to renew or buy more," Estenssoro said.
Too often, says Gartner analyst Luis Anavitarte, countries use all their technology resources to buy a large number of PCs.
"A computer won't reduce the digital divide by itself," Anavitarte said. "It's a first step, but it's not even the most important one in my mind."
Beyond the purchase, computers have to be fixed and kept up to date.
"When a company buys technology, there has to be an implementation plan," Anavitarte said. "Governments should do exactly the same on a larger (scale)."
In many cases, Latin American centers have outdated technology ranging from dot matrix printers to low-resolution screens, says Daniel Brandao of Brazil's Instituto Fonte.
"That gives rise to frustration and the sensation that there is 'half digital inclusion,'" Brandao said.
Sao Paolo's Cafe Aprendiz is home to both gourmet food and an Internet cafe for seniors. It's part of a "neighborhood-as-school" concept advanced by Brazilian journalist Gilberto Dimenstein.
Without sustainability, the PCs often fall into disrepair and disuse. But sustainability has many factors. The computers have to be working, for sure, but the centers also need a clear aim. Among the most successful inclusion centers are the ones that have a purpose--whether it is helping students with homework, providing job training for the unemployed, or helping the disabled to communicate. Microsoft's research shows that the average utilization rate for PCs at telecenters in Brazil is just 21 percent.
Meanwhile, many credit for-profit Internet cafes, or LAN houses as they are called in Brazil, with doing the real work of digital inclusion. It is here that many people get their first and most sustained access to technology.
At the CIREC nonprofit in Colombia, workers craft prosthetic limbs.
"LAN houses are very often used," said Brandao. The challenge, he said, is that they are often small mom-and-pop operations that don't have the same kind of social service connections as the nonprofit and government-run inclusion centers. "Is it possible to develop any work in the sense of integrating them to the digital inclusion movement?" he asked.
In Colombia, one group is trying to use Internet kiosks as a means of both digital inclusion and healing the wounds of civil war. It is hiring ex-combatants to install and maintain the machines.
But Internet cafes, even those with social aims, have their limits as well. In numbers, they may reach more people. But they are reaching mostly people in urban centers, or at least in decent-size towns, and only those who can afford to pay anywhere from the equivalent of 50 cents to $2 per hour.
Brazil, for example, is spread out over an area larger than the continental United States with many remote regions. Only the government--and even then only with the help of telecommunications companies--has the reach to get to those.
New technology, including WiMax, could help on this front. Intel, for example, has a pilot project in Parintins where it has hooked a remote village onto the Internet.
Working together for digital inclusion
What is clear is that shared access facilities--whether government-sponsored, NGO-led or for-profit enterprises--are a key to reaching huge swaths of the Latin American population that are not likely able to afford their own PC anytime soon.
"I don't reach the next 1 billion or 2 billion people without great shared-access," said Orlando Ayala, a senior vice president of Microsoft and Colombian native charged with helping shape Microsoft's policies for emerging markets.
The LAN houses deserve credit for bringing a measure of digital inclusion, but with investment and partnership, the for-profit computer centers can serve a broader role, said Jorge Salas, general manager of Microsoft's Unlimited Potential unit.
Salas said that Microsoft is kicking around the idea of helping spearhead a for-profit enterprise. The idea is a chain, sort of the Starbucks or McDonald's of Internet cafes. Microsoft won't own or run the effort, but will help it get off the ground, Salas said.
"We think we can contribute big time for digital inclusion--genuine digital inclusion--not just access to the Internet," Salas said.
Microsoft is working with CDI--a nonprofit that has been working on digital inclusion issues for more than a decade after founder Rodrigo Baggio sold his technology company and decided he wanted to use his know-how to bridge the digital divide.
CDI started with a single center in 1995. Now it runs digital inclusion centers in prisons, has specialized ones for those with developmental disabilities, and has stretched to remote regions of Brazil and beyond its borders into other Latin American countries. But it also requires that its projects have means of being economically sustainable.
Microsoft hopes it cannot only expand the number of Internet cafes in Brazil--from today's 65,000 to more than 100,000--but also add educational and job-training components and improve the quality level.
"There is high turnover, about 40 percent," Salas said. "Most of them don't follow standards for hygiene, for technical specifications (and) security."
Microsoft hopes to offer not just cut-rate Windows licenses, but also training and assistance in marketing, finance, and administration. The company hopes to have a pilot by October with five participating LAN houses. The effort should expand to 50 by January, and by mid-2009, this project should be open and scaled to the entire country.
The effort won't be unilateral on Microsoft's part. "We'll have several alliances to run the program," Salas said. "We cannot do it alone."
Day 1: Inside Brazil's slums
Paraisopolis, one of Brazil's slums, has a computer lab connected to a health clinic and community center.
Day 2: Empowering youth
One project has transformed a crime-ridden area with a neighborhood-wide learning center.
Day 3: Improving accessibility
Some of the most striking nonprofits in Brazil help people with disabilities connect to the Net and jobs.
Day 4: Up close and one-to-one
Here's a look at a school that is home to one of the largest one-to-one computing projects in Latin America.
Exploring tech in South America
CNET News' Ina Fried sits down with Kara Tsuboi to discuss her special report on computing in Latin America.
A 'Social Silicon Valley'
Journalist Gilberto Dimenstein transformed a Sao Paulo neighborhood filled with crime to one filled with learning.
The real power of the PC
Entrepreneur Rodrigo Baggio turned his attention to tech as a path to economic empowerment for the underprivileged.
Opportunities, obstacles in Brazil
IBM's Claudia Fan Munce, who grew up in Brazil, discusses open source, VC, and other tech forces in the country.
Up close with one-to-one computing
The Bradesco Foundation school is home to one of Latin America's largest one-to-one computing projects.
Intel's Classmate PC enrolls
Brazil: Free software's biggest and best friend
The New York Times
Brazil or bust: The great computer race
Brazil falls in love with Linux
Editors: Mike Ricciuti, Desiree Everts
Design: Susan Dove
Production: Kenny Ash