Monday, July 12, 2010

Race Online 2012 - time for a new approach?


Published today, UK Digital Champion Martha Lane Fox's Manifesto for a Networked Nation sets out a bold ambition:
"By the end of this Parliament, everyone of working age should be online and no one should retire without web skills."
The headline is that there are 10 million adults in the UK who have never used the Internet. Coverage from the BBC here and a piece by Martha Lane Fox in the Guardian here. The BBC's Rory Cellan-Jones raises the question of cost in his blog - who's going to pay for this to happen:
"It's clear that Martha Lane Fox is hoping that much of the work can be done by the private and voluntary sectors. She's asking firms to come up with packages that would enable people to get online for an upfront fee of around £50, and says people should be able to get "easy and affordable" access to the internet, in the same they get access to water, electricity or gas. There are also, she believes, plenty of things the government can do to encourage wider take-up of the internet which don't involve spending money. Controversially, some of them may involve making some services available exclusively online, giving people no alternative but to use the internet. But it's hard to see how the pledge of universal web access for the UK workforce - which may well be backed by the prime minister later today - can be fulfilled without some government money. The trouble is, one of the key areas for spreading the message, the education system, is facing severe cuts in its capital spending."
The degree to which cost is a barrier to going online is an interesting question: according to the manifesto, only "14% of people think that the internet access is too expensive for them". But, at the same time, over 50% of households with children cite cost as a barrier. So cost is clearly an issue for certain groups. However the manifesto states that "lack of motivation, access and skills are the key reasons why people don’t get online". There is also an underlying reliance within the manifesto on the market to deliver, with suitable encouragement, what's required...sounds depressingly familiar?

In the light of this we need to consider what constitutes going online much more broadly if we're to realise the many important benefits out in the manifesto. We also need to think very carefully about the other groups and agencies that can help with this agenda. In some instances I believe there is little to be gained by trying to convince an individual directly, but much that can be achieved by other agencies working in partnership on their behalf.

The population of the UK is ageing. From the Office for National Statistics:
"Over the last 25 years the percentage of the population aged 65 and over increased from 15 per cent in 1984 to 16 per cent in 2009, an increase of 1.7 million people. Over the same period, the percentage of the population aged under 16 decreased from 21 per cent to 19 per cent. This trend is projected to continue. By 2034, 23 per cent of the population is projected to be aged 65 and over compared to 18 per cent aged under 16."
This is particularly interesting in the context of today's manifesto:
"The fastest population increase has been in the number of those aged 85 and over, the “oldest old”. In 1984, there were around 660,000 people in the UK aged 85 and over. Since then the numbers have more than doubled reaching 1.4 million in 2009. By 2034 the number of people aged 85 and over is projected to be 2.5 times larger than in 2009, reaching 3.5 million and accounting for 5 per cent of the total population."
If ten million adults aren't online, my guess from the figures above is that a significant number of these will be from the "oldest old" group described above? Now while there is nothing precluding members of this group getting online via traditional means, as I'm sure many already have, but, without wishing to be unkind or unfair, I'm sure there are many who are reluctant or unable to do so, for a variety of reasons. Asking an elderly individual to engage with the complexities of not only going online but also learning to use a computer is not a small ask.

Which leads me back to thinking about what going online means, and the role of other agencies. One of the most important areas of benefit for an ageing population is improving access to healthcare. Online delivery offers the potential to make it both much easier for individuals to access services and also supports much more efficient and effective delivery - a win-win situation. One piece of technology that everyone regardless of age is comfortable and familiar with is the television. You can see where I'm going with this now: it seems to me there is a role for, for example, Primary Care Trusts to work in partnership with broadband providers to deliver healthcare services via TVs equipped with set-top boxes over a suitable infrastructure. It makes much more sense to simply provision groups that need such access with an appropriate access mechanism, regardless of whether a commercial alternative is available to them or not, rather than relying on a campaign championing the importance of broadband and going online to get the numbers up.

Such a set-up would most likely require an FTTC or ideally FTTH solution, to support the rich interactions that healthcare services require. It could easily support a range of additional services as well, all within a much easier to use and familiar medium than a computer equipped with broadband access. Which brings me back to Rory Cellan-Jones' point about who pays: bringing together existing funding streams from across different public services, all of which are increasingly reliant upon broadband, seems the most sensible approach to me, to deliver a range of services to those that stand to gain the most across an open-access infrastructure.

I don't think that "inspiring people and nudging them towards trying the internet for the first time" is the right approach for every context. We need to be more proactive than this if we're going to realise all that broadband has to offer. Ironically, the manifesto includes a quote from Mark Walker, regional ICT champion, National Association for Voluntary and Community Action, which sums up this issue perfectly:
"In Brighton, Hove & Portslade, we have 1,400 community voluntary organisations for 250,000 people: 400 are networked through the local forum, but that leaves 1,000 charities you wouldn’t know where to find them. There’s more voluntary organisations that talk to funders than talk to each other - to make a change in how these organisations think about technology talking to funders is key."
While there is much to praise in today's manifesto, there are some very important strategic opportunities missing too, in terms of engagement with the wider public sector and industry, which is a shame.

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