Closing the digital divide

The debate was attended by Stephen Uden, head of skills and economic affairs at Microsoft; Helen Milner, managing director from UK online centres; Stephen Dodson, director of the DC10plus Network; Bhobhinder Hundal, technical director of Regenerate IT; and Carmel Cahill, from the Ealing Community and Voluntary service. Robin Knowles from Civic Agenda, organisers of the Digital Inclusion conference, chaired the debate.

The final third
Robin: There is good quality data to suggest that there is about a third of the population that remain digitally excluded. Who are they and why are they excluded?
    
Helen: Research has shown time and again that there is a link between digital exclusion and social exclusion. And the two main factors are age and social class.
    
Recent data reveals that 50 per cent of people that are not online are 65 or over. And 49 per cent of those not online are in social classes D and E. Interestingly, 29 per cent in those social groups are also over 65.
    
Stephen Uden: People might think that it’s just a generational issue, and that it will just disappear. But worryingly, the data suggests that growth is really starting to plateau. And there is a considerable amount of young people that are digitally excluded. So you couldn’t just sit it out.

Social class
Robin: Given that there is a substantial amount of people from social classes D and E not online, should these people not be fairly easy to locate, for example, in the 48 New Deal for Communities areas?
    
Helen: 75 per cent of those not online live in social housing so the local authority housing association has a key role. But we work with 12 NDC areas across the country and not one regards IT as a key area.
    
Stephen Dodson: People haven’t made the link between investment in IT as a way of tackling social-economic disadvantage. If you are digitally literate, chances are you have more money. And yet it seems that people in power don’t actually understand that concept.
    
Helen: It’s about how to get those people who deal with unemployment or antisocial behavior to consider digital inclusion as one of the solutions or even as a contributing factor. The point about it plateauing is because most people that make decisions are people like us. And as our peers are online, there is a temptation to say that there isn’t a real problem; everyone is going to catch up eventually.
    
But our research shows that the key barriers to getting everyone online are access, motivation, and skills and training.
    
Bhobhinder: What motivates us to adopt new technology is seeing a revenue stream attached to it; we earn from it.
    
Helen: But for someone in their 50s, who has never used a computer – although they may understand the benefits – the fact that it will take some time to become computer literate could be off-putting. Plus there’s the cost factor.
    
Carmel: You really have to find that hook. So for those people seeking social housing, you have to convince them that submitting their housing bid online is the best and quickest way. Then you’ve found that incentive.

A need for collaboration
Carmel: A lot of initiatives have come out of government making it easier to do things online. But now there are so many websites from all different departments and very little is joined up. There is a lack of coordination.
    
Bhobhinder: What needs to happen is for local authorities to communicate with each other to come up with an infrastructure that is nationwide on a single platform. The problem is although you’ll occasionally come across an ICT manager who does think about that last one per cent of people that the solution doesn’t meet, most will be happy with a solution that meets 99 per cent.
    
Stephen Uden: There is also the issue of risk. We’re experimenting with lots of programmes and we know it’s not always going to work. But it’s harder for local authority partners to get involved in something that is potentially high risk because they are using public money.
    
Stephen Dodson: I ran the innovation programme within local government and out of the 45 projects funded, only six are continuing. And most of these are run by social entrepreneurs. A lot of local government projects were not picked because the neighbouring authority would not take the risk. But even the Audit Commission’s report Seeing the Light is telling local authorities to be innovative and take risks.

Universal access
Helen: But the government will ultimately benefit from universal access. There is the economic benefit as online transaction is the cheapest. And the other is about improved services. You can now report antisocial behaviour or find out when your bin will be collected online when before you had to ring.
    
Stephen Dodson: To conclude, I’m optimistic about this agenda and do feel that although we haven’t reached the final third, we’re getting through to the consciousness of the final third. And that’s an important step because if you get these concepts into the heads of policy makers and businesses, then the solutions will follow.

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