Digital inclusion still alive and kicking – and Web 2.0 set to increase the gap

The National Digital Inclusion Conference, which took place last week, saw the ‘digital divide’ move out of the shadows and into the political and commercial limelight. With the rise of Web 2.0 interactivity, everyone is at risk of becoming ‘excluded’ from what will soon be mainstream social networking and virtual world technology. Changing how we think about the divide, how we tackle it and how we extend the benefits and opportunities technology presents to everyone, were just some of the conference themes.

The Transforming technology, empowering people conference was hosted by Civic Regeneration in association with UK online centres. It explored the relationship between digital and social exclusion, and its effect on the development of online services. Speakers included Chief Secretary to the Treasury the Rt Hon Stephen Timms MP, Parliamentary Secretary to the Cabinet Office Pat McFadden MP, and Sir David Varney, author of the Service Transformation review.

Opening the conference was Helen Milner, Managing Director of UK online centres. She said: “It’s a common misconception by the ICT-literate that everyone is using computers and the internet to conduct their everyday business, buy goods and find out information.

Everything seems to have a www option, everybody seems to have a blog, and we’re all connected at the touch of a mouse or mobile phone button – aren’t we? The fact is, an estimated 14 million people still aren’t doing IT. It’s the current technology consumers that are consuming more and extending their skills as services increase and Web 2.0 technology extends internet boundaries. And as they move up the digital ladder, the gap between the users and the non-users is bigger than ever.

“Just a few years ago, people thought that time and market forces would close the digital divide. But the number of internet users has stalled, and at the same time the internet is changing from a passive information-providing medium to a participative global community. That’s not just a problem for the individuals left behind, it’s increasingly a problem for government and for industry. The high levels of interest in the conference and input from leading figures in the political, commercial and third sectors proved that the digital divide isn’t over. It’s not going away, and it won’t be swept under the carpet.”

Speaking at the conference, The Rt Hon Stephen Timms MP, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, identified the fast pace of technological change as one of the big challenges facing the UK in the coming decade. He said: “The natural focus for a debate like today’s will be on ensuring that rapid technological change … does not further weaken the position of the technologically disadvantaged. … We are determined to realise the potential of changing technology to open up services to people who have had problems accessing them in the past.”

Enlarging on this theme, Sir David Varney, whose review on Service Transformation was published back in December, commented on the ‘anarchists’ paradise’ that is the current system of government helplines. Improving services for the people that need to use them means putting people at the heart of delivery, and Varney issued a challenge to government to follow the example of the Apple shop just a few streets away from the conference itself. Such innovation and customer service, he asserted, should be the model for ‘transforming’ government services.

Other speakers at the Digital Inclusion Conference included representatives from the BBC, the Oxford Internet Institute, Intel, BT, YouthNet and Start Here. Helping people gain control of when and how they interact with each other, with the state and with other services was a recurring theme. Also covered were issues around the ownership of personal information, and the data-sharing balance to be struck between making interaction simple, and keeping information safe.

The conference continued to explore the nature of an obviously evolving digital divide. Helen Milner continued: “Digital inclusion isn’t headline news. It’s not one of the issues on which elections are fought, like health, education, employment or crime. But what has emerged from the conference is the recognition that digital inclusion does have an impact on those issues, and that giving people the confidence and skills to make digital choices and take digital opportunities has a wider political, social and economic consequences.

“For me, the most encouraging thing about the conference was the range of delegates from different sectors all committed to making sure people have the chance and the choice to get a foot on the rung of that digital ladder. Let’s hope that interest and commitment can drive a step-change in the scale of action needed to have a lasting impact on empowering the digitally excluded.”

Pat McFadden MP, Parliamentary Secretary at the Cabinet Office, closed the conference, and praised the day’s objectives. He said: “If we want a society where everyone can be all they want to be, achieve as much as possible, and take pride in doing so, then the digital agenda must be part of it.”