Making digital inclusion matter

With a wide gap between those with a PC and those without, UK online centres work to increase the number of citizens with access to the internet. Back in 2000, the network of UK online centres was set up by the former Department for Education and Skills (DfES) to provide public access to technology. Since then ICT has invaded school, work and social lives. Broadband has penetrated 56 per cent of households, and www-dots are part of everyday language.  
    
So it might have come as a surprise to some, seven years on, to find that far from fading away with the rise of technology UK online centres were short-listed for an EU E-government Award in September, and were behind the nation’s very first Get online day in October.  
    
‘Digital divide’
Helen Milner, managing director of UK online centres, explained: “It’s easy to assume everyone is already online, and that the ‘digital divide’ is dead, or at least on its last legs. But the truth is it was never just about access - people need the skills and motivation to use ICT too. And there are still a significant number of people without the right combination to take part in the digital revolution.  
    
“Our research shows that a staggering 40 per cent of adults aren’t online. Around one in 12 households don’t have access to a computer, a mobile phone or a digital TV. What’s more, those already at a social or financial disadvantage are three times more likely to be on the wrong side of the digital divide. 75 per cent of socially excluded people are also digitally excluded, and missing out on the benefits computers and the internet can provide.”

Social impact and cohesion
Digital exclusion, according to Milner, is not only alive and kicking, but increasingly caught up with social exclusion. Today, the 6,000 strong network of UK online centres are not just providing access to technology, but driving demand for it and supporting excluded people to use it effectively.
    
It was the ‘social impact and cohesion’ category of the EU E-government Awards for which UK online centres and myguide received their nomination earlier this year.  myguide, originally another DfES project, is now the main tool used by UK online centres to help socially and digitally excluded people take their first steps online – and onto government services – all from a simple, personalised homepage.  
    
New Skills Minister David Lammy commented: “There are often complex factors at work in exclusion – age, culture, disability, income, education or even attitude. Overcoming those barriers is key in creating a fairer and more equal society, and that’s the goal UK online centres and myguide are working towards. The network exploits ICT to improve skills, individual lives, community cohesion and social inclusion.”
    
Milner added: “I’m delighted UK online centres and myguide were short-listed for the EU E-government Award. I believe that together the two are a unique national asset. There are very few places in the world that would invest in a public resource to improve digital and social equity on quite this scale, and even though we didn’t win it was great to see UK online centres and myguide recognised on a European stage.”

Important resource
Over the autumn, UK online centres’ focus has been on excluded families, and they were behind last month’s Get online day, which took place on 12 October as part of Family Learning Week.  

Milner explained: “We believe the internet is a particularly important resource for families and hundreds of Get online day events took place at UK online centres across England. These events gave offline families the chance to see what they could do on the internet, and what the internet could do for them.”
    
David Lammy was one of Get online day’s supporters. He said: “Education research clearly shows that parental involvement is one of the major factors affecting children’s educational performance. With school league tables, exam results and even the process for booking school places and meals all going online, mums, dads and guardians have more reason to be brushing up on their internet and ICT skills than ever.”

“People who aren’t online can’t help their children with homework research on the internet or supervise them online,” continued Milner.         

“They aren’t renewing their tax disc online, emailing friends and family, comparing prices or looking up information at the click of a mouse, and they’re still queuing up to check their bank balance or get their shopping in. Being online really could save families a bit of money, a lot of hassle and time that they could be spending together.”

Wider impact
Being offline, however, is not just a problem for the individual, or for their families. As David Lammy mentioned and Milner goes on to explain, digital inclusion has a wider impact on their community, and on society and the economy as a whole.  
    
“At UK online centres, we believe connecting people to computers and the internet can connect them to each other, to their community, to government services, to political processes, to new skills, new or better jobs, new opportunities, information, consumer power and convenience. Our financial modelling estimates that new internet users could be more productive and efficient to the UK economy, contributing an extra £229 to GDP per digitally ‘included’ person.  
    
“The trouble is that digital inclusion just isn’t that sexy. It’s not a subject upon which general elections are fought and won, and it’s not a political hot potato. But arguably it does have an impact on some pretty key policy areas – from education to employability, e-services to equality. It’s great to have the support of David Lammy and the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) as our sponsoring department, but I remain clear that digital inclusion is a cross-departmental, cross party and even a cross sector issue.”
    
Making a difference
Milner concludes: “As UK online centres continue to sell the benefits of being online to digitally excluded people, we also need to sell the impact of digital inclusion to public, private and third sector stakeholders. I believe that it’s only by working together we can make digital inclusion matter, and make a real difference to today’s digital divide.”

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