Canadian portal success inspires Chilean telecentre

Claudio Orrego, mayor of Peñalolén, Chile, recently gave a presentation in Ottawa about a potential collaboration between Canada and Chile on a digital democracy project there.

Orrego, also a former Minister of Housing and Head of Chile’s Committee for Modernization,

started up a single telecentre in 1997 to provide IT skills to those without access to computers. Since its inception, the first centre, which started with a little seed money from Canada’s International Development Research Centre, has grown into a network of 16 locations.

The idea for the centre, called El Encuentro, was inspired by Canada’s approach to providing community access to the Internet and its Strategis portal to promote e-business.

Orrego’s visit in Ottawa this week was hosted by the Institute for Connectivity in the Americas, an organization that supports efforts to increase the connectivity levels of Latin American and Caribbean nations.

ITBusiness.ca: How did you get involved with the telecentre project?

Claudio Orrego: In 1997, I was made responsible for e-government and the modernization of state program for Chile. I decided with a few friends to start this telecentre in Chile after a visit to Canada. We were invited by the Canadian government to see the modernization of state programs and I saw three things that we actually ended up replicating in Chile. One was the Strategis project — using IT to foster relationships between companies. Then (we replicated) the Canadian government portal, which has everything of the government on one Web site that you can search in a very intelligent and simple way. The third was the Community Access Program. In fact, the program I started, called El Encuentro, which is our network of telecentres, was inspired by the experience I had in Canada.

ITB: Tell me a bit more about Chile’s committee for modernization. Where is Chile with e-government?

CO: We have come a long way. We’ve covered the first two stages — putting everything we had online, even if it was a static Web page. We have more than 600 public institutions on the Web. We have 374 actual transactions with government you can do over the Net right now, from procurement and tax payment, to getting a birth certificate over the Net. However, we’re facing new challenges now. If you want to move forward you need to integrate, not only between the back and front offices, but between agencies. People are asking citizens for the same papers over and over again, so we need to integrate that, and that’s a huge challenge.

The second is the digital divide, in various ways. One is within government. Local governments are in the stone age, but we have the central government in the 21st century. So we need to close that gap.

The other (divide) is among citizens. We have done a lot in government to increase the quality of the supply of public service; we have done little to increase the quality of the demand of the services. A huge majority of the country not only doesn’t have a place where they can be connected, but they don’t understand, they don’t think they need it, which is even worse. If you have the need you will develop the tools, but without the need you’ll never develop the tools.

The third type of digital divide, incredibly enough, is with the private sector. We discovered, both from my work in the public sector and my work with the private sector, that after the hype of the Internet bubble and all the first stages of modernization, companies are hesitant, they’re more scared; they’re having second thoughts about technology. Now we’re in a different world where government is pushing through fast, and companies are kind of staying behind.

ITB: In Canada we have access to flat-fee broadband, which has helped increase access. How does it work in Chile — is it mostly dial-up that you pay for on a per-minute basis?

CO: The majority are on dialup, even though high-speed connections are increasing. We just did a very interesting study in the private sector by the equivalent of Industry Canada. Of course big companies have everything — a fax, computers, dedicated connections, and when you moved down the scale of size and got to medium and small-sized companies it was interesting because most of them have phones and computers, but the minority have Internet connections. So is it a matter of only bandwidth or is it more about understanding the importance of using it? So I come back to content. If you have good content and good training, people will get the bandwidth.

However, in terms of citizens, I think it’s a different problem. Some people have computers in their homes, and for many of them dialup is what they can afford, and probably it will meet their needs. The problem is people who don’t have a computer at home or work. For them having a community infrastructure or public infrastructure that is available plus the required training that will be culturally pertinent is what we need. Right now we’re doing a leapfrog change here because we’re opening all the public education infrastructure in Chile  — computer labs in the schools, having libraries for the community — and that is going to increase our capacity to absorb this need from the people.

ITB: How do the centres work? It’s an interesting combination of capitalism and socialism, it seems.

CO: Public sector offices provide access to youth, the elderly and micro-entrepreneurs. Then we have the community-based projects where I don’t think we have got that far. The CAP programs here in Canada are much stronger than we have in Chile. If you’re not state and you are not business it’s difficult to stay alive. We decided to charge from day one because we knew after the first seed money was gone we would have to survive and after eight years that has been the key to our success, even though we work in very poor places.

I always say poor people also drink beer, go to see soccer games and smoke cigarettes, so they are willing to pay for those things they value. I think if we’re able to show them the Internet is also valuable they will pay and they’re doing it. The third component is the private sector — the cyber cafes you also have here — at the local level. However, neither the public sector or the private sector (options) provide to society what the community access projects do, which is a sense of community and I think that’s very important for this new information economy we’re building.

ITB: How was your model perceived?

CO: The sustainability issue is something we were faced with from day one and we were misunderstood. People would say, ‘You come here to a poor neighbourhood and charge people. Where is your social conscience?’” Down the road everyone will face same issue and now I feel (vindicated) that everyone is charging for telecentres. There is no seed money for telecentres. If you want to continue operating, especially for rural society and poor urban society, you need to have strategies that will make you sustainable. The Canadian government is doing a good job by inviting us all to the table to share our experiences and to learn from each other.

ITB: What have you achieved? What kind of an impact have the centres had on Chileans?

CO: It’s the self-esteem. People were able to break their fear of learning again. The second is people develop their skills, and they’re acknowledging that the new economy requires new skills. Right now even if you don’t have formal training if you have computer or Internet skills you have a greater chance of getting a job.

The third thing we are also seeing is a new generation of young people discovering new work opportunities. It’s not that they’re going to be a good secretary because they know (how to use) the Internet; we have young people from the telecentres getting into the IT industry.

ITB: What are your biggest success stories, both at the individual level and at the community level?

CO: El Encuentro Corp. We started with something that looked like a computer centre and now it is a community centre where you have community radio and hundreds of people of different ages, backgrounds and political ideas getting together and taking their future into their hands. As a mayor elected just three months ago, I can tell you 80 per cent of the politics I want to implement in Chile to tackle very harsh social problems requires a very organized community. So unless we find ways of stretching that social capital we won’t get anywhere. In terms of individual stories I have tons. Alfredo, who was the first guy that entered our centre right is now a very successful system administrator. He’s from the slums. He’s the first guy in his family ever to enter university. He did his first job as a volunteer without knowing anything about computers in this centre.

Information is power. Pushing forward these types of projects empowers people and when people have power they hold you accountable, and I think that’s a challenge we face. So e-democracy has more to do with power than with technology.

ITB: How was it funded and by how much?

CO: We didn’t get funding. We got the equipment. We started with volunteer work, and as we wanted to do more things I started charging and we covered our operational costs, and therefore we could hire people. When you hire people, you can (be open) more hours and give more training. Then we discovered we could get some government subsidies for training on a results basis. So we took a risk and it has been very successful.

ITB: The statistics on who connects to the Internet in Chile that I saw suggest it’s mostly young educated males who use it. Has that started to shift at all?

CO: I don’t think we have a gender issue anymore; there are as many women as men using it. We do have an age issue, still. The majority of the people are young. We see more and more people not in that age group. One of the problems we’re facing, and that’s why I’m so keen about cybercafes, is the kids that learn will use the computers all the time. I’d rather have them in a cybercafe and leave the centres for people who need more time to learn.

We have a law that now mandates that every single agency in the municipal governments will buy everything over the Internet through ChileCompra (Chile Buys), which is our e-procurement site. So imagine what happens when you get to a local community where people that are not connected have this law. You cannot sell to me if you are not connected. In January this year I made a promise that every single microentrepreneur of my community will get free training if they want to use ChileCompra. So e-government projects in one way can be a threat to the local market, but it can also be a good opportunity.

Comment: info@itbusiness.ca

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