SCIP Digital Inclusion Event at Labour Conference

Sometimes the mark of a good meeting or debate is that you emerge with more uncertainty than when you arrived. SCIP Digital Inclusion event hosted by NixonMcInnes and WiredSussex last evening on the Labour Conference fringe certainly left me with more questions than answers.

There was a clear view of what digital exclusion is from the speakers. And it’s a huge issue: massive numbers of people are not getting the benefits of computers and web access. I was particularly troubled by the evidence of how school children without computers and web access at home are seriously disadvantaged. So much learning and so many educational resources are available online now that they are losing out to an enormous degree. Lots of digitally excluded families are single parent families too. But, equally, digital exclusion can also mean geographical exclusion because there are no pipes and be related to disability and age.

Tom Watson MP was very clear regarding political structures (and also rather good fun as usual): government needs to be more joined up and he’s rightly enthusiastic about the work of Martha Lane-Fox as the new digital champion. He was candid on the level of understanding of new media, web issues and digital exclusion in government: “It’s pretty bad.”

But I wonder whether we came any closer to understanding why it matters or why we should care more. Is digital inclusion a human right as the French recently have decreed or is it just a Good Thing, or is the economic importance dominant? Digital inclusion also brings better educational and employment opportunities. Graham Walker, Director of Strategy for the Office of the Digital Champion asked the question: why should we care about digital exclusion? And perhaps because all of us there knew it was important, we didn’t more adequately answer that question. But it seems we need to.

My other big question regards what exactly has been achieved when not insignificant sums have been spent and, perhaps more keenly, are the right people doling out the cash? It seems to me that broadband access has surged from nil in 1997 to 65% today had little to do with government. Moreover, I didn’t get a really tangible sense of what could be achieved quickly and efficiently.

I guess the nature of the event was always going to favour a top down philosophy and examining what can be done by government. The essential approach of the panel was: let’s define the issue, let’s get the issue on the agenda of government more fully and let’s get loads of money to tackle it. And UK Online Centres has been evidently successful and the Home Access plan is welcome: it’s a great scheme to give families with school age kids computers and internet access at home.

But as the £300m Home Access budget was mentioned I couldn’t help feel some disquiet at Mark Walker of SCIP’s cheerful admission that one of his projects had spent £180k in a year and achieved very little.

I very strongly believe that business has a critical role to play here. For me chirpy Graham Walker’s sceptical bargepole view that keeps business distant is simplistic not least because it views business predominantly as a budget holders to be tapped. Needless to say, he is fearful that business would get involved merely as a PR stunt and that’s fair enough. But business involvement can be not only but also. In particular, there are people in business, people like Martha lane-Fox, who could be useful. Expertise, not just cash.

We need to be clearer on why we should be passionate about tackling digital exclusion and more honest about how it’s damaging society and the economy. Of course, on so many levels, we’ve only just begun but it seems to me that government doesn’t understand the issue and yet we’re looking to them to solve it. Great swathes of expertise and success, from business in particular, remains untapped.

And here are some of the other questions that sprang to mind:

– Should we compel very profitable, usually international companies such as eBay/PayPal/Skype, Google, Yahoo and the rest to shoulder some of the burden of tackling the problem? The money they make goes straight to California and Leichtenstein and the like. Should they be ponying more up?

– The pipes issue can be solved: just needs cash. Right?

– The BBC surely has a non-self serving role in doing more here? They get such a chunk of cash, after all, and compete with private business online. Do they need a specific role here that stretches beyond catering to people who are already online? One thing that occurred to me was: should the digitally excluded be exempted from the Licence Fee or perhaps get a voucher to the value of the Licence Fee to spend on getting included? (And yes, I know, a half-baked and tricky idea but it sprang to mind!)

– Should we accept that there will always be some people who aren’t online, like we seemingly tolerate the fact that some people are can’t read and write proficiently?

– Might clever, lean and ethical local businesses and organisations be better than govt, third sector and agencies at spending the money that becomes available?

– Where do schools fit in with this problem? And libraries?

– What is going to happen if the Conservatives win the next general election?

3 Responses to SCIP Digital Inclusion Event at Labour Conference

  1. Hi Dan

    Thanks for the post – useful catch up and seems to me you’ve helped bring some focus to the questions, and started answering some of them. A couple of points I’d add:

    Can business pony up more? Someone mentioned a ‘percent for inclusion’ type project where companies donate say 1% of profit to a pot. There are other things business can offer but this may combine CSR interests with a need for non-Government resources to drive change

    Problems with pipes seem to be about market failure. So yes, maybe money but not only money, otherwise the same problem arises when the new technology becomes inadequate.

    More strategic roles for the BBC would still have to make practical sense on the ground. On a local level the BBC has played a positive role by raising the profile of the issues of getting online, providing materials to help people get online and provide a reason for people to get online. It also has a drop in centre on Queens Road and many people take their first steps online there.

    Yes let’s assume some people won’t get online – but there are lots of people who want to but can’t. And it is useful to have a focus for this issue at a national level ie Martha Lane Fox otherwise the statistics can be picked to pieces and ignored.

    All sorts of people can waste untold amounts of money from all sectors – my point about the money we had was that it would have been smarter to spend the same amount over 3 years, not be governed by rules which required us to spend it in 12 months.

    For those people not used to working in the voluntary sector and being funded by grants it can be difficult to understand how frustrating that can be for us. And in case it wasn’t clear we get 50% of our income from grants but the other half comes from selling services. I wasn’t cheerful about wasting the money – I couldn’t disguise how stupid I think the process was.

    Yes, schools and libraries need to be part of a whole picture, as do community centres, older people’s centres, young people’s centres, Big Issue offices, etc etc. The last time I saw that come together was in the early 2000s when UK Online encompassed libraries, businesses, community centres, BBC, etc. Then it was taken ver by UfI and slowly mouldered.

    I hope support for UK Online translates into a chance to make good what many many people consider to have been a monumentally wasted opportunity to address this issue in a much more joined up way.

    Does it matter who is in charge? I’ve seen Labour spend big budgets on big government programmes – including getting a share of the eGov billions it blew on all sorts of digital trophy projects. No matter who’s in power no one can afford to do that again. I hope that means we can focus on what we know works – and we know a lot about that – and invest in programmes that build on existing resources and expertise to change things, especially at a local level, without prescription from on high.

    Thanks

    Mark

  2. cyberdoyle says:

    We have evidence of children in rural areas getting detention because they haven’t been able to download/upload homework to school because they can’t get broadband where they live. The teachers don’t believe them. They believe the telco/ofcom hype that this country has broadband to 99.6% of the population. We ask the RDAs for help. They too believe the hype and say it is not in their remit. We ask the government for help. They say ask the RDAs, its their job to help. We go round in circles, and nobody believes us. We build our own wireless networks to help our neighbours and now they want to tax them. All we need is access to fat fibre pipes in rural areas and we will build our own fibre networks and the community will own this last mile, freeing us from the tyranny of the copper cabal.
    Until policy makers realise how shoddy the current victorian infrastructure really is there is no hope for digital engagement.
    Throttling and capping are putting off the early adopters. Free and cheap ISPs are compounding the problem, because their charges from openreach are massive, so in order to give people cheap broadband they put too many on one card in the exchange – for example to pay for an ‘up to 8meg’ feed an isp charging £20 has to put £150 users on that feed. Bear in mind that streaming iPlayer uses half a meg. Therefore if more than 16 people do it at once then the other 100 and odd can’t even access eGov sites… do the math…
    The telcos are milking the system without investing in the network. Until they stop working on the scarcity model and open up the pipes with fibre to the home this country is fighting a losing battle, and the price will be that our kids are left out and businesses disenfranchised in the global economy, which is now a digital economy.
    chris

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