Public Access to the Internet and Social Change:
An experience in Colombia, between silence and hope

Ricardo Gomez & Luis Fernando Barón-Porras1

University of Washington

Paper presented at CIRN-DIAC Conference: Vision and Reality in Community Informatics, Prato, Italy, Oct 2010.


The use of information and communication technologies (ICT) can contribute to community development. Public access venues such as telecentres, public libraries and cybercafés make ICT more broadly available, extending the benefits of ICT to underserved sectors of the population. Development is seen as a process of empowerment of marginalized communities to transform their immediate reality and improve their quality of life. This paper presents a case study of public access venues in the small municipality of Carmen de Bolívar, a small town in Northern Colombia. This municipality has a strong tradition of community organization for social development, and a long history of violence that have shaped its social fabric. The case study assesses the contribution of public access to ICT for community development, capitalizing on the region’s experience with community organization. This study found that the introduction of public access to ICT may not have contributed significantly to community development. Venues that provide public Internet access are mostly used for personal social networking (e.g., Facebook) and to access pornography. To a much smaller degree, public access ICT is also used for homework by schoolchildren and for online banking and government transactions by adults. The absence of community development activities is especially surprising given the relative strength of the community organizations that have worked on communication activities in this region during the last decade. This vacuum may be a consequence of the violence suffered by the inhabitants of the region in its recent history, or of the preference for private access to computers and Internet at home or at work for community development purposes. We conclude that public access to ICT alone does not necessarily contribute to community development, especially if the political environment is not conducive or if there are no strong social organizations in the community.


ICTs have great potential to contribute to community development (Unwin, 2009), and numerous experiences with public access to ICT through venues such as telecentres and public libraries have taken root in Colombia and around the world as part of strategies for digital inclusion (Amariles, Paz, Russell, & Johnson, 2006; Parkinson & Lauzon, 2008; Warschauer, 2003). In addition to libraries and telecentres, in the last few years hundreds of cybercafés, small businesses that offer computers with Internet access and other connectivity services, have sprung up. The presence of numerous cybercafés has transformed the landscape of public access to ICT, making computers and Internet access a commodity that is easily available in large and small cities, even in remote villages and towns. Cybercafés can also have what Argentinean researchers called an involuntary contribution to community development (Finquelievich & Prince, 2007): they can contribute to development even if that is not their mission or purpose.

The so-called digital divide, is nothing more than a reflection of the existing social, political and economic divides, and ICTs alone cannot change the relationships of inequality extant in society (Gomez & Martínez, 2001). In order to contribute effectively to social development, people need not only access (public or private) to ICTs, they also need strong community organizations, and the ability to participate in social and political processes. In addition, the community needs the assistance of people with skill in the use and appropriation of ICTs as tools for communication in support of social and community development are also necessary. Community organizations mediate between ICTs and community, between local needs and global sources of information, and as such, play a key role in the use of ICTs for development processes.

In areas where violence is widespread, community organization and effective mechanisms for communication are crucial to social transformation. In his analysis of the role of communication and power in the networked society, Manuel Castells concludes that “violence and the threat of violence always combine, at least in the contemporary context, with the construction of meaning in the production and reproduction of power relationships in all domains of social life. The process of constructing meaning operates in a cultural context that is simultaneously global and local” (Castells, 2009, p. 417). In our study, we build on this notion of communication as power, in the face of both violence and community organization, to assess the contribution of public access to ICT (a new and powerful communication tool) for community development, empowerment and social transformation.

As part of a wider study about the state of public access to ICTs in Colombia, this article analyzes the case of Carmen de Bolívar, a municipality on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, two hours south of the historic city of Cartagena. This study also included other municipalities and capital cities in five regions of the county, where we sought to understand the role of public access to the Internet in social development. We examined public libraries, cybercafés and telecentres as the principal points of access to ICTs. We include community telecentres (supported by non-governmental organizations) and governmental telecentres (supported by the government’s Compartel program); both have a mission to support community development. Cybercafés include commercial locations that offer access to computers connected to the Internet and offer different services in towns and cities: sometimes they offer food or beverages, connectivity services like telephone calls, scanning, printing, photocopying and disc burning, or diverse services such as hair salons, gym or video games. We exclude venues that are not open to the general public (such as computer labs in educational settings), just as we do not consider private access to the Internet (access at home or in the workplace).

This research explores access to and use of ICTs in locations such as telecentres, public libraries and cybercafés. Fieldwork included surveys, interviews, focus groups and literature reviews. For collecting data, we had the support of local liaisons in each of the six regions of Colombia. This project continues work on the research project “Landscape of public access to ICT in 25 countries,” conducted between 2007 and 2009 by the University of Washington (Gomez, 2011).

The rest of the article is organized as follows: First, it offers a description of the research methods. Then, we summarize the unique characteristics of the municipality of Carmen de Bolívar, Colombia, with particular reference to violence and community organization. Next, we discuss the principal findings of the study in Carmen de Bolívar and conclude with a discussion of the implications these findings have for programs of public access to ICTs from a community development perspective.

Research Methods

This research expands on the work done in the study, "Landscape of public access to ICT in 25 Countries" and in particular the ACE framework (Gomez, 2010), which assesses public access venues in terms of Access, Capacity and Environment features of libraries, telecentres and cybercafés. For the study in Colombia, we adopted the regional distribution standards used in the National Survey of Community Television (Angel, 1998), which divides the country into five regions based on cultural and demographic criteria. This helps to provide a representative sample that reflects the diversity of the country: the Caribbean coast, Santanderes, Antioquia and Eje Cafetero, Central region and Southwest region. In each of these regions, we studied a capital city with high population density and a town with medium population density. This regional distribution model allowed us to have national coverage and to distribute the aggregate sample proportionally and statistically in the selected regions, based on the 2005 Census performed by the National Department of Statistics2

For this study, we used a mixed methods approach (Creswell, Plano Clark, Gutmann, & Hanson, 2002) for data collection and analysis, which gives the study added relevance and credibility. The data collection strategy was based on the following activities (described in more detail below): user surveys, semi-structured expert interviews, semi-structured user interviews, structured operator interviews and focus groups of operators and users in six parts of the country. The survey was based on a statistically representative sample of the population, proportionally adjusted to the demographic characteristics of the five regions. The focus groups in particular allowed us to understand the "information ecosystem" in each location, as they brought together participants who had diverse experiences and used different venues for public access to ICT.

As part of the investigation performed on the Caribbean coast of the country, we included the municipality of El Carmen de Bolívar. El Carmen is located in the north of Colombia, some 80 kilometers south of Cartagena, one of the most important cities in the Caribbean region of this South American country. El Carmen de Bolívar has a population of 70,000 and forms part of the Montes de María region, also known as the Serrania de San Jacinto, located between the departments of Sucre and Bolívar. This is a mountainous region below 1,000 meters, which includes the peaks of La Pita and Maco, which are used for placing radio towers. In these hills are the municipal capitals of Sincelejo (capital city), Chalán, Colosó and Ovejas in the Department of Sucre and of El Carmen de Bolívar, San Juan and San Jacinto, in the Department of Bolívar. Currently El Carmen de Bolívar has the third largest population in the department.

The inhabitants of the regions are mostly people of mixed race, Afro-Colombians and indigenous people, who maintain cultural traditions passed down by different indigenous communities from the region and brought from Africa during the slave trade. These traditions, mixed with European and Spanish customs and worldviews during the conquest and colonization, have continued until the present day. The region’s diversity is expressed through a fascinating richness of musical rhythms, dances, foods and cultural and artistic practices.

The municipality of El Carmen de Bolívar, where we conducted one of our focus groups, is characterized by a paradoxical history of social organization, agricultural development and violence. In this city, similar focus groups were conducted in six locations across the country (Bogotá, San Gil, Carmen de Bolívar, Medellín, Marinilla, and Cali), with the goal of taking a closer look at the characteristics and practices of the use of telecentres, libraries and cybercafés in these municipalities across the country.

Data Collection Strategy

This study uses a mixed methods approach, drawing samples that took into consideration the demographic distribution and regional variety of the country. We utilized a pre-existing division of the country into five regions, based upon previous communication and development research in the country (Angel, 1998). In each of the five regions we drew the sample from the capital city and a small municipality (pueblo), in order to reflect the diversity and variety of both urban and non-urban experiences in different cultural settings around the country. The data was collected using the following activities:

User Surveys (n=1,135): We surveyed 1,135 users of venues that provide public access to ICT across the country. The size of the sample was statistically representative of the country, adjusting to population distribution in urban and non-urban settings for each of the five regions, based on data from 2005 census.

The samples for cities and municipalities in each region is shown in the next table, adjusting for enlarged samples in case of data collection errors, and distributed for urban/rural population distribution in each region.


Cities Municipalities

Sample size by proportion of regions

Adjusted sample size for collection error

Sample Distribution within each region, to account for urban/rural population



Caribbean Region





El Carmen de Bolívar







San Gil


Central Region







Antioquia and Eje Cafetero







Southwest Region





Santander de Quilichao







The survey included users of three types of venues providing public access to ICT in cities and municipalities; with attention given to gender equality, age variation (including older adults) and ethnic diversity, including indigenous and African populations when relevant. The surveys were conducted by local survey administrators in each location during various times of day and days of the week. The survey administrators recorded the answers with pencil and paper. In some cases, answers were also recorded to an open question included in the survey.

Expert Interviews (10): These were conducted as open interviews in two groups divided as follows:

6 Thematic Experts: experts in the field of public access to ICT associated with the academy or with non-governmental or governmental organizations, with balance between the sectors and areas of expertise. Expertise was based on: publications, personal recognition and participation in international, national and local networks. For the most part, these experts were based in the large cities (Bogotá, Medellín, Cali).

4 Local Experts: opinion leaders in activities related to community communication in each region. These local experts were selected based on their knowledge of the region and their participation and knowledge of cultural dynamics. They also acted as liaisons who coordinated the other forms of data collection, such as operator surveys and focus groups.

Interviews with Operators (100): We conducted 20 of these structured interviews in each of the five regions, and maintained a proportion between capital cities and municipalities (70-30% for Caribbean and Santanderes, 80-30% for the rest, as shown in the figure above) for each of the five regions, as well as a balance between the three types of venues (telecentres, cybercafés, libraries). We also maintained gender balance, representation of different ages and ethnicities (indigenous peoples and Afro-Colombians, in the regions where these two groups are important variables). The selection of operators was done by the local liaisons, based on their knowledge of the distribution of sites, types of users and uses, with the goal of including a variety of experiences, sizes, sites and populations served.

Semi-structured interview (Life Story) (10): We conducted interviews with ten people selected by human interest or their relevant personal experiences with use of ICT through public access venues. These interviews were about personal stories judged by the researchers to be relevant or important because of the transformation, motivation or vision of ICT for development that they revealed. The cases for these interviews were identified during the surveys or interviews of users, operators and experts.

Focus Group Workshops (Information Ecosystem) (6): A total of six focus group workshops were conducted in each of the regions of the country. Each workshop included approximately twelve participants, including users, operators, and other stakeholders in the field of public access to ICT (e.g., school teachers, ICT trainers, leaders of local community organization, etc). We ensured equitable gender representation among participants, as well as the participation of people of different ages, education levels and socio-economic status, persons with disabilities, and ethnic minorities if appropriate to the region. The main purpose of these workshops was to explore the ecosystem of uses of ICT in public access venues in the community. At the same time, we sought to understand the interactions between different types of public access venues, their relation to mobile phones and community radio, and some of the local perspectives on their benefits for community development.

The case of El Carmen de Bolívar

The focus group in El Carmen de Bolívar consisted of thirteen people, five women, and eight men; some users, some cybercafé and telecentre operators, and a representative from the municipal library. During the conversation, they created a "social map" of the venues for access to ICT in the municipality, talked about the uses of ICT in this territory and about the characteristics of the users of public access venues. Furthermore, they performed an analysis of the differences between ICT at the library, the two telecentres and seven cybercafés in the municipality, and the challenges they faced in this region. In addition to the focus group workshop, we collected 31 user surveys and performed twenty operator interviews. Furthermore, we conducted an in-depth interview with a 32-year-old user who is a leader of this town, and is currently the legal representative of the Association of Disabled Persons. In the interview, she relates the way in which access to new information and communication technologies has affected her life as well as that of her organization.

When we arrived in El Carmen, we felt the penetrating heat of the Caribbean, as we were no longer near the coast and its fresh sea breezes. At the time of our visit, the region was experiencing an intense summer, and as the people of the region told us, it had been four or five months since it last rained. In this municipality we felt not only the warmth of the climate, but also of the people, who were happy, calm and very talkative. Furthermore, we could feel the dynamism of this municipality that is at a major crossroad of the country; roads lead to Antioquia (northwest) and to other cities in the Caribbean region such as Sincelejo, Cartagena, Valledupar, Santa Marta and Barranquilla. 

The dynamism of this region is related to the farming and ranching industry, which is complemented by a prosperous mining industry (coal and nickel). The vitality is also expressed by the movement in the streets, in the coming and going of cars, campers, motorcycles and bicycles; the amount of people who meet in the main park and the multitude of people who walk the streets during the day, visiting the store and other commercial establishments: granaries, pharmacies, bars, cafeterias and internet cafes. This movement also reflects the high levels of informal employment in the region and the country as a whole, despite the troubling unemployment statistics, which reached 11.8% in the country in March 2010 according to official statistics (

As the legislative and presidential elections were drawing near, the municipality was full of banners, signs, billboards and fliers with political slogans. One of the tallest buildings of the main square we saw a large poster with a Senate advertisement of the son of a woman who owns a gambling business in the region, and who is on trial for presumed involvement with paramilitary organizations. In spite of the accusations and trials that occurred due to these ties, the son of the businesswoman, like so many other politicians tied to her, gained seats in the Senate as well as the House of Representatives, the most powerful legislative bodies in the country.

We noted three types of informal businesses that are symptomatic of the local needs in the community: the sale of minutes (mobile phone calls), transportation (moto-taxi rides) and water (clean water or potable water that is sold door to door). These three activities illustrate some of what is missing in the municipality: basic necessities that people resolve by resorting to the informal economy: water, transportation and communication. These three activities contribute to the well-being of the population, but they also express the clear limitations that people must live with day after day.

Cheap Minutes

Walking around the streets of El Carmen de Bolívar, one encounters hundreds of businesses that sell minutes on mobile phones: between five or six vendors per block in the downtown area. These vendors provide their mobile phones to make calls at prices that vary between 50 and 300 pesos per minute (US$0.04 - 0.15). (In Colombia, unlike North America, calls to a number by the same mobile phone provider are cheaper than to a different provider, and all incoming calls to a mobile phone are free). The number of vendors and their prices rise and fall with the coming and going of social, political and cultural events in the municipality. The majority of these businesses are a person with one, two, or three mobile phones (to cover different mobile providers at their lowest rates), offering calls that are paid for by the minute, on the spot. Some of the businesses work as a network or as part of the services offered by a store.

All the participants in our workshop had mobile phones and confirmed that most families in the urban area of El Carmen de Bolívar have at least one mobile phone, but they rarely use it to make calls, only to receive them. When they need to make a call, they buy minutes from a phone reseller on the street. None of the people we spoke with in El Carmen de Bolívar use text messages or data transfer (internet) on their mobile phone, although they all knew it is available. In this case, mobile phones resolve a basic communication need, paid call by call, using a hybrid system of receiving calls on a private mobile phone, but making calls using a public access mobile phone.

Cheap Rides and Expensive Water

Local transportation is also taken care of through the informal economy, using "mototaxis." Mototaxis are one of the principal forms of public transportation in the municipality, provided by those who use their motorcycles to take people from one place to another. The fare for a ride within the municipal capital is approximately 1,000 pesos (US$0.50), which is much more than a minute call on a mobile phone. Mototaxi rides are considered an inaccessible luxury for the poorest inhabitants of the city.

A different kind of public service, water, is also sold piecemeal, door to door, in another manifestation of the basic needs delivered through the informal economy. In spite of the relative closeness of El Carmen to larger cities like Cartagena or Sincelejo, it still lacks aqueduct or sewer service. Water is sold in distinct quantities using a variety of vehicles, from tank trucks to bicycles and wheelbarrows modified to carry liquid from house to house. In addition, they sell potable water (for drinking or cooking), clean but non-drinking water (for cleaning or laundry), or briny water (for construction or other necessities). The lack of aqueducts and sewers have led the people of El Carmen to design and construct creative systems for collecting rainwater that they store and use for all kinds of domestic tasks. It is common to pay near 3,000 pesos (US$1.50) for a “load” of water (100 or 200 liters), which is equivalent to about 100 pesos per gallon. El Carmen de Bolívar, like other municipalities in similar conditions, has one of the highest costs for water in the country. Studies performed in the region have shown how the price, gallon per gallon, ends up being much higher than that paid by a member of one of the upper strata in any of the larger cities in the country (Bernal Forero, 1991). For example, in Cartagena the cost of a gallon of water in expensive neighborhoods is eight pesos (US$0.005), this does not even consider the convenience, quantity and quality of water consumed in each place.

Photo 1: Minutes at 100, Moto-taxis at 1,000. El Carmen de Bolívar, Colombia. Photo R. Gomez.

This illustrates how, in the marketplace in El Carmen de Bolívar, one can buy a one-minute call to any mobile phone in the country for 100 pesos, a moto-taxi ride to any home in town for 1,000 pesos, and a gallon of potable water in bags for 2,000 pesos. It is the informal economy of poverty.

The region of El Carmen de Bolívar has had a long history of community organization, especially in the areas of communication for development. Nevertheless, a long history of violence has also left deep wounds in the social fabric of the region. The recent arrival of venues offering public access to ICT in El Carmen de Bolívar has opened new opportunities for information, communication and development in the region. To better understand the context in which public access ICT is introduced, we discuss some elements of the history of violence in the region, and then some elements of the history of community organizing in the region. As we will see, it is possible that the social fabric was too weakened by a history of violence, making it more difficult for public access ICT to become a tool for community development in El Carmen de Bolívar.

El Carmen de Bolívar in the crossroads of violence

Montes de María is known in Colombia not only for its economic, geographic and cultural characteristics, it is also known, sadly, as it is one of the regions most affected by the violence in Colombian armed conflict, which has been going on for more than sixty years. In the 1990s, this region became the site of a territorial dispute between all of the armed groups that had coexisted in the country: guerilla organizations, paramilitary groups, drug traffickers and the National Army, with grave consequences for the civilian population caught in the middle of the conflict.

Montes de María was one of the most important places in the peasants’ uprisings and mobilizations of the 1970s. This was one of the reasons why the people of the region became part of the targets of leftist guerilla organizations, which attempted to control them by filling the void of the absence of the Colombian state. In the 1990s the leftist guerrillas were confronted by right-wing paramilitary groups for control over the region, in an unprecedented escalation of violence that is epitomized by the massacre of El Salado, a small village 10 km from El Carmen de Bolivar, in February 2000. During three days, between 300 and 450 armed paramilitaries took over the town and publicly assassinated between 70 and 100 civilians, and caused the displacement of over 4000 people. According to the report by the National Commission for Reparation and Reconciliation, the El Salado massacre forms part of a notorious and bloody escalation of violent events perpetrated by paramilitary groups in Colombia between 1999 and 2001. During this period, in Montes de María (in the outskirts of El Carmen de Bolívar) paramilitaries committed 42 massacres, leaving at least 354 people dead (Grupo Memoria Historica, 2009). 

According to the group investigating the massacre of El Salado, the presence of armed insurgents in a region of such geostrategic importance led to the stigmatization of the population as subversives, leaving the inhabitants in the middle of the crossfire, similar to other regions of the country.  This “stigma of being subversive” has been one of the most characteristic and costly features for the civilian population in contemporary wars. It is a double stigma: first, because the victimizer mitigates their responsibility by transferring it to the victim, and second, because it creates a climate of suspicion that materializes in popular expressions of condemnation, such as "there must be a reason", "they must have done something.”

The increase in the number of massacres committed mostly by paramilitary groups could not have occurred without their ties with the political and economic elites, and also without the acceptance and complacence of many sectors of society. The possibility of participation of the armed forces of the State has been mentioned, and there are accusations of the participation of the National Marines in the massacre, either by action or by failing to act, which have not been properly investigated3.

According to the Historical Commission, as opposed to other mass killings, what happened at El Salado went further than the supposed “eliminating the enemy”. Acts of torture and the massacres were part of the same operation. And in cases like this, the majority of the crimes were carried out in the public square with the manifest intention that everyone would see, would hear and would know; showing that all would be "punished" for their supposed complicity. The “scorched earth” tactic used by the paramilitaries in the region not only left a land without men, but also left many men without land. The forced displacement, or perhaps, exile, was one of the strongest and most lasting impressions of the turmoil in the region, leaving almost total desolation. El Salado was turned into a ghost town. The figures of the exodus in El Salado illustrate the high level of terror caused by the paramilitaries: of the 4,000 people who were displaced, only 700 have returned to their original homes.

After the massacre at El Salado, the mass media presented, the voices of the victimizers and of the State institutions. The voices of the victims were kept quiet. The dominant presence in the media was that of the paramilitaries, who, using a discourse of saving the motherland from the guerillas, blamed and stigmatized the victims of El Salado, who had no chance to confront their attackers or question the ethics or politics of the situation. The media, in this case, did not offer the victimizers an opportunity to show regret, confess, or tell the truth about war. To the contrary, the media served to reinforce what had happened and continue the ignominy of those killed at El Salado (Grupo Memoria Historica, 2009).

As the report of the Historical Commission indicates, one of the distinctive features of this massacre is that, in spite of its size and barbarity, the imposition of the narrative of the victimizers was imprinted into the collective memory. Furthermore, the public is still unaware of the extent of the massacre, and has not condemned the victimizers, nor expressed sympathy for the victims.

The strong tradition of community organizing in El Carmen de Bolívar

In addition to the history of violence in the region of El Carmen de Bolivar, there is also a long tradition of community organization and social development activities in the region. Most of these initiatives and projects have been carried out by social organizations that have grouped together to defend and reinforce their rights. They have been supported by international donors, by the State and the Catholic Church, and to a lesser degree, by private businesses. This is a region with a great capacity for community organizing, and local organizations have been able to create and maintain alliances with educational initiatives and in general with public institutions. In addition to being able to support each other, projects started by one organization can easily find themselves being executed with another community group. This is the case with projects developed by organizations like the Fundación Red Desarrollo y Paz de los Montes de María (FRDPMMa), la Fundación Mujer y Futuro, y el Colectivo de Comunicaciones Montes de María, among other organizations in the region, who support each other in their work. This type of alliance between organizations, including those with ties to the State, and especially with international organizations, greatly enhances the sustainability of the projects (Rodriguez, 2008b).

A look at the programs and projects for community development carried out in the area in the last five to ten years allow us to identify several focus areas. The poor, displaced and at-risk populations in urban and rural communities in the areas affected by the violence, and helping affected population to reduce their risk of exposure to the conflict and to mitigate the negative impact of possible side effects of the conflict as well ( In addition, they have created a series of spaces for the defense of human rights and for the right to own land and to reside in the territory ( Furthermore, there is also the implementation of different projects for food security, planning for local and regional development and capacity-building and support for peasants’ organizations.

Projects to raise awareness and political participation, to strengthen citizen oversight and to promote of public accountability have also been very important ( There have also been important initiatives and projects of communication for peace and social change ( Furthermore, there is a series of programs in the region about sexual health and reproduction that seek to prevent teenage pregnancies and guarantee access to sexual health and reproductive services to at-risk populations, and to prevent boys, girls and young people from using drugs or joining the armed groups.

One of the largest and most comprehensive projects implemented recently, although not without conflict and tension in the region, is the III Peace Laboratory, supported by the European Union, the National Government and the United Nations system in Colombia. This initiative, started in 2006, looks for lasting ways to create peace in the midst of violence, poverty and institutional instability that currently exists ( Thus, the Center for Political Culture, Peace, Coexistence and Development was created in the region of Montes de María. The Center is also charged with proposing viable solutions to improve the quality of life for the inhabitants of the region, as well as achieving a lasting peace.

Communication and Information in El Carmen de Bolívar:
The case of the Communications Collective of Montes de María - Linea 21

Art and cultural production can contribute to repairing what armed violence destroys in the daily lives of the civilian population. A clear example of how communication and culture can become tools of cultural resistance against the negative effects of armed conflict is the experience of the Montes de María Communications Collective (Rodriguez, 2008a; Vega & Bayuelo, 2008). This is an experience that started in 1994 when a group of young people, who came together as community journalists using a video camera to document communication and culture in their municipality, which had been racked by violence.

Once they had begun to produce twenty hours a week of televised municipal news related to the happenings in the mayor's office, the schools and other nearby paces, they bought a satellite antenna to pick up commercial television programs and like that, they cabled the municipality and subscribed some of the residents, who paid to watch the commercial television as well as the local production. “The Collective has various lines of work: training in radio production offered to children through 18 school collectives in the town; training in radio and television production for teenagers and young adults in El Carmen and in neighboring communities; training in radio and television for groups of displaced women in local communities; a travelling street cinema project and a cable television channel.” (Rodriguez, 2008a, p. 23)

Today the Collective is an NGO that works in the areas of Communication, Education, and Culture through the investigation, production and broadcasting of programs on various alternative and citizen media, such as radio, television, citizen presses or bulletin boards, among others. Through this experience of community communication, it seeks to position children as social actors in development. It has also involved women, parents, teachers and adults in projects directed toward the promotion and disclosure of human rights and children's rights, pedagogy for peace, gender equality, the environment and civic values.

Some of the most successful activities the Collective include the Cine Club La Rosa Púrpura del Cairo (Vega & Bayuelo, 2008), which started screening movies at dusk in the town square. Public screening of movies gave residents the chance to go out in the evening and revive a sense of doing things together in the community, something that had been lost with years of violence and fear. By also screening locally produced documentaries, the collective also helped residents recognize the power of valuing and recording the memory of their community.  Another project the Collective has directed is "The Promotion of Rights and Networks for Building Peace in seven municipalities in Montes de María. This initiative, promoted by the Presidential Office of Special Programs and financed by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), promotes the right to sexual and reproductive health, prevention of teenage pregnancies and the creation of networks for building peace through the strategy of communication based in information, education and Communication – (IEC), which uses community and citizen communication to build the relations between institutions, alternative media production groups, school, local government, social networks, family and society in general ( The Collective has also participated in the project "Promotion of Health and Sexual and Reproductive Rights in Montes de María," which was carried out by the Foundation for Network Development and Peace of Montes de María and belongs to the Pais 2003-2007 Program of the UNFP, an agency for international cooperation for development. “Throughout the entire process, we have formed a network of school radio collectives in eight municipalities in Bolívar. We support the creation of five collectives focused on audiovisual production. Six neighborhood collectives for infants and children in El Carmen de Bolívar. More than 3000 boys and girls, 1500 young people, 120 teachers at around 120 parents trained. 160 displaced women in a continuing education program for adults, in agreement with Cafam and Improsocial. We have an audiovisual (radio-tv) production center and a community channel.” (

Other results that the Collective has achieved through their activities and projects include the betterment of intergenerational relationships within families and larger communities, creation of spaces of coexistence and trust between young people and children, and strengthening the sense of belonging for the municipality and the region.

In 2003 the Communications Collective Linea 21 received the prestigious National Peace Prize in recognition of the group's impressive work. The National Peace Prize is awarded to "the Colombian initiative that, according to a panel of judges, has made the most significant impact in terms of creating peace in the country this year" (Rodriguez, 2008a, p. 16). According to the minutes of the 2003 awards ceremony, this project contributed to the reconciliation and peaceful coexistence by strengthening the social fabric of the region. This prize is sponsored by the United Nations Development Program --UNDP, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung in Colombia -- FESCOL, and various Colombian media companies (Casa Editorial El Tiempo). The Collective has also received other special recognition, such as two special mentions in the First Annual Colombian Caribbean Coast Community Channel Competition and an award at the ninth Santillana Prizes was given to one of the core parts of the Collective (School radio station "Chaqueros de la Paz" from the Benkos Biojo School in Palenque).

Landscape of public access to ICT in El Carmen de Bolívar

The focus group participants created a social map of the municipality, and located on it the following venues that provide public access to the Internet: two telecentres that are run out of an educational institution that provide training for after school training; the municipal library, which offers limited, but free public access to computers and the Internet; and seven cybercafés located in the center of town. They also mentioned several people who offer Internet access in their houses in remote neighborhoods, as well as a wireless Internet service that covers nearly all of the municipal capital.

Photo 2: Social map of public Access to ICT in Carmen de Bolivar, Colombia. Photo: R. Gómez

The majority of public access venue users are young people between 16 and 35 years of age. Each venue has a particular audience, although all the centers offer services to the public; cybercafés in particular serve younger people, but all types of residents visit them (shopkeepers, students, people with family in other parts of the country and the world); telecentres tend to serve adults who need training, and the library primarily offers services to primary and secondary school students.

The public access venues are used primarily for the following activities, in order of importance:

  • Communication: resources that allow communication and participation in social networks (chat, Facebook, email, MSN, and to a lesser degree, Hi5, Sonico, Twitter)

  • Studying: doing homework, schoolwork, taking distance courses or looking for information about colleges.

  • Entertainment: music and videos (YouTube), online games, downloading music

  • Business: getting or renewing personal IDs or other identification documents, and filling out forms related to work or government offices (licenses, permits, official documents, etc.).

The workshop participants indicated that a major use of venues that provide public access to the Internet is viewing pornography, even though they preferred not to write this on the visual map they were creating. In a short but blunt sentence, a participant summarized the principal use of the Internet as "Facebook and Porn: nothing more".

Different uses for different venues?

This research allowed us to explore the uses of different types of venues, and to assess users’ preferences for which venues serve which purposes. These are the main characteristics indicated by the participants for each type of venue:

  • Cybercafe: Important features include comfortable furniture, good Internet connections, and currency of the equipment, including computer accessories (webcam, headphones, CD burner). In addition, participants noted the privacy and freedom offered here, as there are no restrictions placed on the types of sites one can visit. Cybercafés often have additional services such as transcriptions, printing and copying. One of the main challenges seen for these venues is incorporating more social responsibility, so that in addition to offering services, the venues improve the community.

  • Telecentre: Participants emphasized the existence of lower prices, personal attention and training offered to people of various ages. They indicated that Internet use in telecentres often has different goals than that of cybercafés, mainly for learning "not just to pass the time" and they had the impression that these venues set up the necessities and prepare the clientele for cybercafés. "Telecentres are proof...a vision of what is possible with the Internet." For example, mothers in the community have benefited greatly from training, because they are able to learn from others, they appear to have incorporated their training into instruction they pass onto their young children. As an official from Compartel, the national telecentre program, says, "in the department of Bolívar, there are 53 Compartel telecentres, which offer free training, but poor Internet speeds [are still an issue]."

  • Library: When questioned, participants noted free service and the emphasis on using the equipment for educational purposes in libraries. They also underlined the restrictions involved due to shared time (few computers, but many users) and connectivity problems. The person in charge expressed her concern because "before, people had better reading habits, now they want what's easiest, they say that education has gotten worse, now one can solve anything by using the Internet, which affects academic achievement, because the ICFES (state Exam) scores in El Carmen have gotten lower". Nevertheless, Internet access has forced parents to pay more attention to how their children use the Internet and have encouraged teachers to seek alternative forms of discussion, homework options and other classroom activities.

These differences notwithstanding, the workshop participants agreed that the most important features of public access venues are, in order of importance:

  • Good customer service (friendliness, care in attention, and personalized training). This was the most important success factor, without which no public access venue can succeed, according to the participants.

  • Accessibility, in terms of nearness, convenience of the location and ease of use. For disabled persons there are additional obstacles such as steps and narrow alleys: in spite of the high cost of private access to broadband Internet, obstacles in public access venues forced one participant to seek private wireless access instead of continuing to visit public access venues,.

  • Features of the equipment and connection, in particular the speed, and the availability of accessories like webcams.

  • Environmental conditions of the venue: in such a hot climate, having a fan or air conditioning makes a venue much more attractive.

Public Access to ICT: Where is the context?

Analysis of the use of venues that provide public access to ICT in El Carmen de Bolívar confirms tendencies identified in other studies: a strong majority of young users, and uses centered on communication and social networks, schoolwork, entertainment and official business (permits, licenses, transactions). Cost is not a deciding factor in selecting a venue, as users pay more attention to customer service, convenience of the venue location, quality of the equipment, and connection speed. But the most surprising finding from the study in El Carmen de Bolívar is the absence of context, or rather, the silence with respect to the extremely strong presences in the region's history: war and community organizing.

Only one of the users, who had ties to the Communication Collective, indicated that ICT served to generate solidarity with those in other places. ICT had also helped disseminate alternative information about a region that had been so stigmatized. But this single testimonial was not corroborated by other participants, interviewees or survey respondents. It is as if the history of violence and community organizing in the region had not existed, and as if venues providing public access to computers and Internet had fallen into a place where the infinite present of social networks and pornography occupied all the public space opened by libraries, telecentres and cybercafés.

We did not find evidence of social fabric being strengthened by public access to ICT. El Carmen de Bolívar is a place where the informal economy of poverty rules, with calls for 100, rides for 1000 and gallons of water for 2,000. El Carmen de Bolívar is a region scarred by violence, with 42 massacres between 1999 and 2001, including one of the most cruel in the country's recent history, the El Salado massacre of 2000. El Carmen de Bolívar is also a region where community organizing reinvents forms of communication and celebrates life with the creativity and inventiveness of the Communications Collective Linea 21, among others, deserving of the National Peace Prize in 2003. Nevertheless, public access to ICT, through telecentres, cybercafés and the municipal library did not help fortify citizen initiatives, give voice to community organizations, or open avenues for community development in this poor, war-torn region.

It is possible that the seeds of community empowerment thanks to ICT were there, and we did not see them, in spite of the instruments we used to collect research information. It is possible that the tracks of war are too deep, and that the public space created by telecentres, libraries and cybercafés is still too young to handle the memories of death and destruction. It is possible that use of computers and the Internet for social change is not happening in public spaces, but rather in the private spaces of organizations, schools, houses and workplaces. Any of these possibilities is better than the most disheartening one: the violence of the war defeated the community organization and their potential.


El Carmen de Bolívar shows the development of ICT and public access venues in a place where society and community had survived exclusion and violence, poverty, unemployment and impunity. These communities have been able to overcome these conditions thanks to their moral and cultural strength, their solidarity and their creativity. And although ICT and public access venues are not a panacea, and do not offer salvation in situations such as these, they can be useful tools in improving the condition of people in the community.

The situation in El Carmen shows that due to economic, social and technological divisions, public access venues--above all those that provide free service--are indispensable. This is especially true in communities where residents first need to pay for expensive water before being able to pay for local transportation or phone calls, all of which are offered as part of an informal economy of poverty. Furthermore, the results of this exercise show that public access venues are very useful in introducing disadvantaged students and young people to ICT; for training those who are unemployed and are looking for other work, and to provide opportunities to the services and information provided by State institutions and social programs run by NGOs and private foundations to people and communities (vulnerable and excluded).

Other uses emphasized in public access venues are communication and entertainment. Through chats and videoconferences, users communicate with friends and family, form groups and communities around common interests and to explore and communicate with others: other cities and municipalities, other affairs around the country and the planet. Furthermore, public access venues seem to be interesting spaces for social interaction: places to hang out and meet with friends, for enjoyment and socializing.

On the other hand, these public access venues present themselves as opportunities for employment and entrepreneurship. Diverse professionals come together in search of employment, and others that see business opportunities in the development of technology and related services.

This look at El Carmen also allows us to affirm that the operators of public access venues -- as employees or entrepreneurs -- have a great effect on the learning and practices of people who use ICT. They are key actors in the system of information, communication and knowledge services. Their impact allows them to influence technical and technological decisions related to programs, institutions and state authorities. Some even have the opportunity to mediate complex political, labor, economic and educational processes and interactions.

In El Carmen, mobile phones and their accessories work to ensure that tools and services reach the furthest places in the city and countryside (including people who use computers or laptops in their home to sell Internet access), but our study indicates that the operators will remain necessary. This means it is important to design proposals that allow these mediators to flourish, to help small business develop better economic, technological and pedagogical conditions. What's more, it is important to support the move from an informal economy to a formal one, and invest in resources that promote communication, interchange of ideas, and alliances between cybercafés, telecentres and libraries.

Finally, there is the discovery that public access venues do not seem to have served in reclaiming, recognizing or disseminating memories and local stories (including those about violence). Neither do public access venues seem very connected with processes of social organization or communication mentioned before, nor are they contributing to the dynamism of the local and regional economy, or as spaces for expression and development of traditions and cultural practices.

In a context like El Carmen, it is necessary to help reconstruct the social fabric, trust and truth. The richness of spaces for organization and communication processes in the region can be a fertile area to generate processes for the use and adoption of ICT, transforming these venues into spaces for local information and communication. In this way, public access venues can transform into spaces for meeting and coexistence, places for innovation and creative undertakings, into centers of job creation and alternative labor that offer alternatives and opportunities to take people away from violence, gangs, criminal organizations and prostitution.


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1The authors acknowledge the contributions of Mónica Valdés, Nyria Rodríguez and Lady Otálora in conducting this research. This research is part of a national study of public access to ICT in Colombia, carried out by the Technology and Social Change Group at the University of Washington, and ICESI University in Colombia. Ricardo Gomez is Assistant Professor, University of Washington Information School. Luis Fernando Barón-Porras is Director, CIES (Centro de Estudios Interdisciplinarios Jurídicos, Sociales y Humanistas) ICESI University, Colombia. Corresponding author is Gomez,

2The National Administrative Department of Statistics – NADS – is the entity repsonsible for the planning, processing, analysis and distribution of official statistics in Colombia. [cited 26 May 2010. Available at]

3From an editorial in El Espectador, 14 September 2009. This editorial asks why the district attorney’s office avoided investigating the flight of a “ghost plane” the day before, as well as the helicopter flyover during the days of the incursion of 450 paramilitaries in El Salado, a zone that was supposedly controlled by the Marines.

The Journal of Community Informatics. ISSN: 1712-4441