Principles of Public Computing Spaces

Summary: Establishment of public computing centers has often been implemented within the digital divide framework and viewed as only stepping-stones towards preferred private access.  However, it is becoming clear that there is an important ongoing need for public computing centers to meet both private and public computing needs of communities.  But to fully support this ongoing need, it is important to reconsider how computing should be integrated into public spaces.  Evidence-based design can be applied to these locations to intentionally create spaces that better foster effective use of public computing spaces.

Public computing centers, that is places where community can walk in to use a computer, have often been established as a means for addressing the gap between those who have access to technology and those who do not, what has come to be called the digital divide.  These computing centers are seen as an efficient way to target underserved neighborhoods and populations.  But an unstated assumption is that public computing is only needed as long as individuals lack home computers.  Once they have sufficient access at home, the public computing centers can go away.

In contrast to the view that public computing centers are primarily a stepping stone for those without alternative access, recent research sponsored by the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services found that forty-five percent of library visitors use the Internet during visits, even though three-quarters of those making use of the computers found in libraries have Internet access at home.  Uses include searching and applying for jobs, reading online news sources, applying for permits, performing online banking, starting local clubs, and planning family outings.  Sixty-three percent also logged on to help others.  Beyond access, participation within public computing centers provides important spaces for pro-social mixing that promotes learning about both technology and content.

There are times we leave behind our home computers and set out for public spaces.  Someone with a home business who finds they can’t get any work done given the busy buzz of family life might go to a cafe to get an important report written.  Others may go to the library to gain access to needed reference material or community consultants but otherwise are working on individual work. In either case perhaps they have their own laptop and just need a place that has adequate Internet access and wall outlets to plug into.  Or maybe they find themselves without access to their own computer and need to take advantage of a public computer.  But either way, the public computing space serves as a location to accomplish a private computing activity.

Further, there’s a growing awareness of the critical ongoing need for public computing to support group activities.  When we come together in community spaces, we periodically need computer and Internet access.  While we might have a mobile computing device like a smartphone on hand, it is sometimes more effective to work collaboratively if a public computer is available within the community space to support our public computing need.  Maybe we want to quickly look up some information found online and share what we find with others using a larger display.  Or maybe the group around the table want to pull up a word processor to collaborative author a document, or a spreadsheet to collaboratively crunch some numbers.  Still other times we might want to come together intentionally within a specific community space in a story circle to develop a video about our lives or as citizen journalists to develop a report about an untold issue of importance in our community.

Environmental psychology and evidence-based design have explored the relationship between humans and their environment.  This research has been applied to a range of different contexts from health care to senior living to office workspaces.  Our objective is to take these lessons and apply them to community centers, and particularly those incorporating public computing facilities.  We believe that evidence-based design that includes consideration of cultural context and individual and community attitudes, aspirations, and other psychological criteria in the design of PCC spaces will lead towards qualitatively and quantitatively different uses of ICT.  Two related questions come to mind:

  • How might we integrate computers and related technology into spaces if we were to design specifically for the private computing and/or public, collaborative computing activities that people are coming to the community space to accomplish rather than to prioritizing a density of computers for general access?
  • How might we integrate computers and related technology into spaces in order to strengthen social connections among users and promote grassroots community building activities including citizen science, community journalism, and digital storytelling?

Further Reading:

  • Becker, Samantha, Michael D. Crandall, Karen E. Fisher, Bo Kinney, Carol Landry, and Anita Rocha. (2010). Opportunity for All: How the American Public Benefits from Internet Access at U.S. Libraries. (IMLS-2010-RES-01). Institute of Museum and Library Services. Washington, D.C.
  • Ceballos, F., Chittoor, J. P., Ehrlich, P., Surman, M., and Carvin, A. (2006). From the ground up: the evolution of the telecentre movement. Ottawa, ON, CA: / IDRC, accessed July 2009 at
  • Gurstein, M. (2003). Effective Use: A community informatics strategy beyond the Digital Divide. First Monday, 8, 12, 1.
  • Nussbaumer, Linda L. (2009) Evidence-based design for interior designers. New York,  Fairchild Books
  • Sandvig, Christian (2003) Public Internet Access for Young Children in the Inner City: Evidence to Inform Access Subsidy and Content Regulation. The Information Society, 19: 2, 171-183.
  • Viseu, A., Clement, A., Aspinall, J. & Kennedy, T. L. M. (2006). The interplay of public and private spaces in internet access. Information, Communication & Society, 9(5), 633-656.

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