Digital inclusion for all

Given the current consultation on digital inclusion being undertaken by the Department of Communities and Local Government, there’s a lot of talk about how to include the 17 million or so people in the UK who are digitally and socially excluded because they still do not use computers and the Internet.

It’s difficult for those of us who use the internet every day of the week – and for most of each day, too – to appreciate just how many people absolutely never use computers or go online. Even 15 years ago when I was pretty new to the job market, PC literacy was rapidly becoming an essential for employment, so in 2008 not having PC skills is almost as big a handicap in getting employment as general illiteracy.

To me, checking email and looking through my immediate circle of websites is not all that far removed from breathing, and I can’t imagine a life in which it’s not part of the regular rhythm of the day. I’m not at all happy when I end up being offline all day for some reason or another.

But many people don’t go online at all. How come? Well, the biggest groups resistant to getting onto the internet are the retired over 65s (despite all that talk about “silver surfers”), the DE low income demographic, and those with a handicap that makes using current technology difficult if not impossible.

The latter group we try and help by highlighting the need to create websites to the WCAG standards (Web Content Accessibility Standards) and by promoting best practice web development. Even so, as anyone who has had the opportunity of having assistive technologies such as screen readers demonstrated to them, the online experience can require remarkable perseverance and skill by the disabled user to overcome the barriers that others wouldn’t even perceive as being there.

The other two groups are usually boiled down to “can’t afford it”, and so the question is all too often therefore framed in the context of financial exclusion. I’m not convinced of this: with desktop PCs and even laptops plummeting in price, and broadband available for under a tenner a month, the running costs for internet access are only around the same as a couple of packets of cigarettes or three drinks in the bar. No, it’s not really lack of outright funds for the most part: it’s a question of priority. And even more than that, it’s a case of people actively not wanting the internet, because they don’t see it having anything to do with them.

In one meeting I attending this week, the idea was floated that mobile phones – which have the type of social penetration that only television can rival – might be the way of breaking through the digital inclusion problem for these groups, since the overwhelming majority of them and of people in the country as a whole – already have mobile phones and are familiar and comfortable with them. The barrier to using them is already removed, so won’t they make it easier for them to get coaxed online after all?

Well, that may be – but they’re not using them for internet connectivity. Nor are large sections of the otherwise “digitally included”, either. For the very simple reason that the mobile internet is still a very buggy and underwhelming experience for the most part, and even more complicated for most users than a normal desktop PC set-up. The small screen makes it an unsatisfying and non-immersive experience, and research suggests that most people who use the mobile internet only do so a couple of times before giving up and never trying it again. Far from being a way of breaking down resistance to the digital environment, it seems to do a very good job in confirming to users that this internet is not what it’s cracked up to be and is a complete waste of time. Having had an old WAP phone for about five years – which I used for the internet maybe six times in that whole period – I can see that point of view.

Sue, there are phones coming along now that do a better job of accessing the internet. The Apple iPhone is one (its share of the market of users accessing sites from mobiles is astounding in the eighteen months or so since it was first introduced.) But it’s still far from perfect from a user interface point of view, and crucially it’s a very expensive toy to purchase – as are the other smartphones that do anything like a halfway credible job of accessing the internet.

So I really wouldn’t hold out too much hope of mobile phones fixing the digital inclusion problem. A better bet it the set-top boxes and games consoles (such as the Nintendo Wii) through the television set, but even here you need broadband to use it, and people won’t get broadband until they see the point of using it.

So the question is – do we accept that a large proportion of citizens in the UK aren’t going to get online? Does this mean that we cannot proceed with transforming services and using online channels for much of public sector service delivery because of the consequences of many people being left behind?

I’m reminded of the arguments when the government decided to stop paying benefits at the Post Office counter and instead insisted on bank account transfers – people who had resisted getting a bank account all their lives now got one because it became necessary and relevant to them. Similarly, despite all the concern about people (especially the elderly) getting left behind by the digital TV switchover, signs from the first region to turn off terrestrial signals suggest its actually gone very smoothly – because people were motivated to take the leap or else lose their favourite TV shows.

So perhaps the way to tackle digital exclusion is to give people a real reason to get online. The BBC is doing a great job of this with its iPlayer service, while national and local government is increasingly making a lot of information and services available exclusively online: the irony of the DCLG’s Digital Inclusion Action Plan consultation being that it’s only availble online, and as a PDF …

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  1. SimonJD

    >> So perhaps the way to tackle digital exclusion
    >> is to give people a real reason to get online.

    This is the crux if it.

    The ‘digitally excluded’ aren’t going to be tempted by the very fact that you have a huge site or cutting edge online application, which unfortunately still seems to be the prevailing attitude. They are going to go for the content that serves their needs in a way that is relevant to them, and you can’t force your audience to a particular destination simply because it suits your comms strategy. If people feel more comfortable with a website, a booklet, or a helpline, so be it.

    Which is why I’d disagree that, potentially, mobile internet isn’t the answer. At least in some situations. As you say, everyone has a mobile, and most likely it is internet enabled if they have got it in the past three or four years. And yes, it’s an unfamiliar experience for most people. But you don’t need to tell the user they need to go online on their phone for the info. Just get them to text a shortcode and tell them to click a link for what they want– they don’t need to know what medium they are getting the information from. Similarly they don’t always want an immersive experience– if I’m looking up something in a dictionary, I don’t feel the need to settle myself down in a comfy chair first.

    Directgov’s Blue Badge Map is a step in the right direction, since it acknowledges that the situation that it is most likely to be required in is when you are out and about in an unfamiliar location (the actual interface is still a bit clunky, but that’s something that will hopefully improve in time).

    I think the ‘games console’ route is a distraction, since you still have to have a desire to explore the web via a browser, which seems to be what you are suggesting this sector doesn’t do. It’s also an environment that is not particularly well suited to the application, so could be an equivalent to your WAP experinces.

    I’ve gone on too long already, but I can’t finish without saying I think that interactive digital telly is fast becoming a missed opportunity. There is still time for it to be exploited, if people could take it a bit more seriously as a development opportunity (why isn’t there a ‘click red’ icon during the benefit fraud ads, for example?), but I’m not holding my breath. Besides, that’s probably another discussion…

  2. I think smartphones could be a big help here. As the new wave of Storm, G1, iPhone and so on are sold, a lot of older smartphones are going to be replaced. We need to encourage three things: firstly, we need to encourage people to donate their old smartphones to other UK users directly or indirectly (instead of to component-breakers that pay charities); secondly, we need to encourage mobile operators to provide online browser/converters for older smartphoners (like 3 do with a proxy running some version of Opera); and thirdly, we need to promote fun free and open source smartphone apps that run quickly enough on older phones (jabbermixclient is one example that comes to mind).

  3. andrewlewin

    As you say, Simon, mobile internet has been around for ages – anyone with a mobile in the last 3-4 years will have that capability. And yet usage of it is very minor – until the Apple iPhone came along, very few people seemed to be using it (hence the iPhone grabbing such a huge share of mobile internet usage within months of launching – it had such weak competition!) If it hasn’t taken off in all that time, then there’s something missing from making it work in my view.

    Yes, smartphones could be a big help here, MJ – but not for the already socially excluded (i.e. those who don’t have the money or the technical acumen/interest in having and using one.) Only those geeks with enough disposable income like us end up with expensive iPhones!

    Perhaps social networking could become the “big application” driving people to mobile internet usage? Vodafone pretty much did an entire advertising campaign based around Facebook access for normal (non-smart) mobiles.

    iTV is definitely a sadly missed opportunity. None of our agencies even talks about it anymore, it’s so dead.




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