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Digital inclusion – reaching the unreachable…

Digital Inclusion Conference, The Brewery, London, Tuesday 30 April 08

Only two-thirds of people go online in the UK. The remaining third don’t use the internet at all. That’s 17 million people who are ‘digitally excluded’. This conference set out to address this remaining third. The government are so keen to address this issue that they’ve even created a new ministerial position for it: Minister for Digital Inclusion (currently Paul Murphy).

This conference was hosted by ukonline centres, a quango which administers funding to encourage ICT in the community and is sponsored by the big boys, including Microsoft, BT, Intel and the EU. The conference was well attended by people from government offices, city councils and other national public bodies. When asked to raise our hands if we were from a voluntary project, only four people did out of at least 200 people. Seeing as how much the government is willing to fund large organisations to meet the challenge and BW felt that we are doing our own little bit in getting people connected, we went along hoping for funding opportunities and contacts.

BW also felt able to give an insight into some of the issues being addressed. Half of the 17 million who don’t use the internet are in social groups D and E – the poorest in our society. BT’s attempts to connect the nation fail when they refuse to give connectivity to families with CCJs (county court judgements or poor credit history). BW consider information to be a right, not a privilege, and offer free access for all through our wireless network.

Matters discussed were quite wide-ranging and interesting: one speaker made the comment that kid’s play areas had been cut by 85% in the physical realm, but that 85% had been taken up by the internet and suggested that education was necessary to keep kids safe. However, speakers’ comments and topics of interest varied downwards from this to what a jolly good thing email is, to how great it was to send digital photos by email to the ‘Great Firewall of China’ and how the UK could benefit from such far-thinking policies. Be afraid, be very afraid.

Stephen Gowland, Digital Challenge Programme Director for Sunderland City Council, described how difficult it was to spend the £7m Digital Challenge winnings, having spent nearly a year trying to fill the positions with staff still struggling to meet his objectives. What Bristol Wireless would have done with that £7m (apart from tucking it safely behind the bar of our favourite hostelry) would have been to enhance the projects which we’ve already got running here in Bristol, with the people who are already in place running them: for example, more supported housing community rooms providing access and training, a larger wireless network, financing media companies for local IPTV, radio and so on.

On a lighter note, I did get to talk to some of the ukonline centre’s movers and shakers, who were interested in Bristol Wireless’ open source model. Free software for the masses, low-spec PCs running the latest operating systems and programmes, which means that hardware is easily and cheaply available. (See £50 PCs from BW …)

Thanks to Connecting Bristol and ICT Hub South West for the opportunity to attend this conference.

For more media coverage check out this link.

2 Responses to Digital inclusion – reaching the unreachable…

  1. Steve Woods May 12, 2008 at 4:10 pm #

    I’m amazed at the cost of this event – £295 + VAT per delegate, a total of over £346 just to warm a seat for the day. For that amount of money Bristol Wireless could have reduced the digital divide by 7 people. Central government throws thousands on expensive conferences to waffle about ‘digital inclusion’ and how it can implement it from the top down, whilst Bristol Wireless spends the equivalent of pennies working from the bottom up and gets better value for its money.

  2. Steve Woods May 15, 2008 at 10:23 am #

    Rich mentions some attendees’ implied thoughts that the ‘Great Firewall of China’ is a good thing and as a consequence those with more liberal views on access to information should be afraid. It may be of interest to point out that 85% of Chinese think internet censorship is a good idea too (PDF report here). Talk about turkeys voting for Christmas…