Martha Lane Fox

“I believe there is a digital divide, but even worse than that we are creating a social and digital divide for the people that are already the most excluded, but yes I think we can really do something about it and the time is now to do that, to get political momentum, bring together all of the projects that are happening all over the country.”

Led by Martha Lane Fox, Race Online 2012 – ‘a small team with a big vision’ – are aiming to get the UK as close as possible to 100% online by the London Olympics. Currently 10 million people in the UK have never been online.

Martha Lane Fox began her talk at the Royal Geographical Society by telling a humbling and inspiring story of the impact that a media centre had on a neglected area of Bristol called Knowle West. A story that clarified to her why spreading technology really matters.

“the power that it (technology) can unlock for local communities to have a voice and to work together in a way that was difficult before seems to me quite extraordinary.”

Explaining how an older resident named Mill Lusk, who was tired of her local area being so run down, encouraged 200 local school children to change the entire landscape of the area and help grow vegetables in the local area, under the guise of a ‘multi-media project’.

“The kids started learning about how to cultivate green spaces and they started working with the older people on the estate and together they were learning lots of new skills from each other. Now there are about 500 kids in this area working with about 250 older people, all of whom are growing vegetables, all of whom are building websites around those incredible things that they are growing and selling them back to the local community.”

Martha discussed her new role as Digital Inclusion Champion and the importance of ensuring that we don’t leave behind large numbers of already disadvantaged people in Britain. 39% of whom are over 65, 38% unemployed and 19% families with children.

“what we can be sure of is that 10 million people have never used the internet and of those, 4 million are the most economically disadvantaged, and they’re the people that I was asked by the government to look at”

“I don’t think it’s really fair or right that there are 10 million people, 4 million of whom are also disadvantaged in many other ways, that don’t have the choices that I get everyday by being able to use the internet.  I’m with France on this one who recently ruled that access to the internet is a basic human right and even better than that, Finland have just decided that it will be law that every citizen will have access to the internet.”

The benefits of engaging people with the internet

Martha explained the different ways in which the Digital Task Force that she now leads, are approaching this issue. Highlighting both the economic and social benefits of universal inclusion in the UK.

“I believe in the kind of social and moral imperative in doing this, but there’s also a hard economic case and one of the things that we pinned down as a team when first started doing this role was trying to convince people if I can’t convince them from the goodness of their souls and because of a more equal society, perhaps we can convince them just with brutal numbers.”

“People save on average £560 a year if they are online, and even the poorest families save £270.”

“You are 25% more likely to get a job if you are unemployed and if you’re in that job, you will be likely to earn between 7 and 10% more than somebody who doesn’t have web skills.”

“People’s feelings of loneliness go down by 80% when they’re online and their confidence goes up by 60%. When you are talking about some of the most disenfranchised and excluded groups in society; those are interesting and important numbers.”

Martha went on to explain that it is not just a benefit for individuals but also for government at a time when cuts are looming.

“It’s not just actually the individual for whom there is a compelling economic case, there’s also a strong economic case for government. We worked out that if the 10 million people who have never used the internet were to move one of the interactions that they have with the government from either a telephone call, or a face-to-face interaction, or a brochure/piece of paper, just one, and on average in a year you have about 13, the government could save £900m per annum.”

Why people don’t engage

Four important reasons why people don’t take up technology were highlighted.

1    Accessibility: “you don’t know how to get it, you aren’t near it, you haven’t got broadband, you aren’t near a broadband connection, you are in a rural area.”

2    Affordability: “you don’t actually have the money or more importantly perhaps, you think you can’t afford it.”

3    Skills/training: “you don’t know how to and obviously as technology becomes more entrenched that actually turns into fear and very often people I’ve talked to said, ‘I didn’t want it because I was actually quite frightened of it and when people showed me how to use it then it became less frightening.’

4    Motivation: “perhaps most importantly, or the thing that I feel increasingly is the area that I can perhaps work on.  Encouragement about why it is something that people should pay attention to.”

Social shift

“I really think we have an opportunity to create big social shift in this country and to enable all of the people who do not have access to technology, who have maybe not thought it was for them, or thought it wasn’t important that it was in their lives to use technology.”

Martha spoke of three ways in which to create a social shift in Britain, by either enabling or motivating those offline, to embrace the online world:

“The first is that when I started (as Champion for Digital Inclusion) in the summer I thought, ‘I’m going to have to come up with some clever ideas, so I’m going to have to invent some stuff’, but not at all.  Everything is happening, every single idea is being carried out somewhere in this country; either at a local level or at a charitable level, through private companies doing things, every single good idea is happening.  We’re just not very good at scaling them up and joining them up.  I think we’re not very clever sometimes about moving things from a local or a micro-level to a national level.  Replicating the best things and lets face it, sometimes just stopping the less good things.  So one of the things that I want to try and do is join up some of the projects that are going on in a more coherent way.”

“The second thing is that really this is no more complicated than peer-to-peer mentoring and training.  People that have never used technology or who have recently learned how to use it, all say the same thing, ‘When somebody showed me, but not just anybody, somebody that I trusted that was like me, then it became something that I was interested in.’  And having now been to many many projects in lots of different places, that seems to me the base-line, that if you have a friend, a colleague, a neighbour, somebody who shows you who’s recently had a transformational experience, that’s the most compelling thing.  It does not have to be much more complicated than that.  So I really want to try and encourage peer-to-peer training, networking, volunteering, all of the things that will unlock that incredible ability for people to show others what’s in it for them.”

“And the final thing, which I think might be the bit that the government don’t quite want to hear about so much at the end of my tenure, is I think that there is a real opportunity for the government to come in and move certain services so that there are only available online.  And I think that by switching off certain services, in the same way that the analogue to digital television switch over has been happening, there could be a real opportunity to carry along the people that have not yet used technology.  Not that might sound kind of overly-paternalistic, nanny-state, but if you refer back to the £900million of cost savings for just one interaction, I would argue that in these times more than any other, that’s a number government really has to take seriously.”

Ways to engage people

Martha discussed two networks that the government have established

(1) UK Online Centres

“this incredible network of places where you can go to learn how to use computers that are often in the most deprived communities.”

(2) Becta – Homes Access Programme

“works with some of the poorest families to give technology to them and to work to make sure that children aren’t left out of having access to computers”

“Using those two networks; expanding them, ramping them up, combine with turning off some services I think could provide a really valuable intervention by government.”

Access vs. Engagement

Martha warned of the dangers of prioritising speed rather ahead of engagement and understanding of using technology.

“I think it is really important that we don’t get diverted by the kind of nirvana of super-fast broadband.”

“Lots of people now say, ‘Oh if only we were like South Korea here in the UK’, but I don’t think it’s that complicated because actually if you look at levels of engagement in South Korea, it’s not much better than it is here.  It’s not actually enabled some of the most economically disadvantaged people in their society to have access to technology and learn about it and use it.  And I think it’s that engagement and understanding what that engagement means, and understanding what being online means that is the really important part.  Of course super-fast access is fabulous if you’ve got it, but I don’t think we should be tripped up by only worrying about infrastructure.  There’s a lot we can do without it.”

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