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Digital Inclusion confusion

12. March 2010 – 13:19 by Fraser Henderson - ICELE

The UK National Digital Inclusion Conference ’10 (note the ironic URL) concluded this week with a mixed sentiment among delegates. Get all the presentations here.

It was on the same day that the Conservative party launched their technology manifesto and that JobCentre Plus released announced an iPhone “jobs” app.

Quite frankly the latter does sound a bit odd – while I congratulate the innovation of a job-seeker iPhone App it really doesn’t seem like an appropriate solution for people dealing with an unemployment problem.

For those of you that don’t know, current plans are that the UK government will introduce a 50p monthly tax on all fixed-lines to pay for next generation infrastructure in areas that aren’t commercially viable.  Of course, this wouldn’t apply to people on ‘social tariffs’.  However, it could be argued that people on low incomes don’t even have a fixed telephone line.  The opposition would undo this, proposing that infrastructure is paid-for through a top-slice of the BBC revenues.

So, back to the conference.  The most striking session was the opener – between the digital inclusion tsar Martha Lane Fox and MP Stephen Timms, Minister for Digital Britain. Martha has dropped the title ‘digital inclusion’ in favour of race online 2012 to coincide with the forthcoming London Olympic Games. She also lobbied for fewer pilots and more action, reminding the audience that many of their digital inclusion objectives should lead to sector self-destruct.  Stephen Timms lobbied for more pilots and more cash!

For me the best speakers were Tristan Wilkinson, Inclusion Lead at Intel and the brilliant Tom Loosemore from 4iP. It seemed like the technology sector had the best grasp of the severity of the problem and the narrow-mindedness of talking about website accessibility was put into perspective by the foresight of the geek squad.

I have been a sceptic about the level of interest and investment for many years – in the UK there are only 10 million people that have never used the internet. This includes 4 million people who are both socially and digitally excluded. But are the problems really digital ones or are they more fundamental, such as literacy levels?

We were all invited to make a ‘promise’ so I promptly got writing:-

“Digital inclusion is an uninteresting problem. My theory is that it will solve itself, either through the adaptation of technology or overwhelming benefits (necessity or compelling events). My promise is to ignore it and concentrate on harnessing the benefits, engaging with the enthusiastic and improving existing services for the masses.”

If the internet is to become ubiquitous it will not be a question of getting online, tapping out words, web pages or even computers. Our thoughts and our senses will be translated directly and digital will become excluded only to those who actively repel it. In other words, the internet interface will be re-invented and as such we shouldn’t worry so much about the problems that it creates. Any futurologist knows this.

SO what else did I gleam? Well, there were some ideas about ‘digital neighbours’ and lots of talk about computers in care homes and social housing [with money attached too].

I also learned of the ‘digital participation consortium’ – a UK-wide coalition of Government, industry and third sector organisations drawn from across the foundation areas of Digital Inclusion, Digital Life Skills and Digital Media Literacy set-up by Ofcom.  Another network, another case study repository perhaps. PEP-NET needs to tie-up here!

I also learned about Getting British Business Online , a joint initiative by Google, Enterprise UK, BT, e-skills UK and many other partners to help small businesses create their first website and help them understand the
opportunities offered by the Internet. This includes a free domain name registration. Hmmm, a free business website without any eCommerce functions?

So, once again lots of disconnect and progress for progress’ sake but some good exhibits and a select collective of switched-on people.

Overall I enjoyed the conference – but let’s hope next year the topic can be something more interesting.

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