The countdown to election – Labour Party Conference

In eight months, we’ll be heading into booths for a General Election. I’ve said before that we’re in a digital decade and I’m keen that the next Government puts digital at the heart of their policies. On 7th May 2015 our digital future will be decided: is digital a key plank for our economy; are digital skills for children and adults a priority; is it OK to leave people behind?

So this year’s Party Conferences are particularly important, and a chance to find out the plans and pledges from each party. Labour kicked off this week in Manchester, and I was there to represent Tinder Foundation and the work of the UK online centres network.

The good news is that I wasn’t the only person banging the digital inclusion drum. Six years ago, mine was the only voice piping up about the need to support basic online skills for all. Last week, there were digital inclusion and digital skills conversations all over the place – most of which I didn’t even start! That’s pretty heartening stuff.

Digital was in fact a key feature of the conference. There was a Tech Central marquee organised by Big Brother Watch, and sponsored by Microsoft, TalkTalk, EE, Moneyhub and Facebook.  It was a hub for digital ideas, thinking and challenges, and bloggers, and the focus of the ‘digital fringe’.

I got to take part as a judge in TalkTalk’s Digi Factor – a cross between X factor/Dragon’s Den/Tech4Good where we heard about some great new tech innovations from Charities. I also spoke on a panel with TalkTalk’s Alex Birtles, the wonderful Maggie Philbin (a heroine of mine from her Tomorrow’s World days), Tinder Foundation’s Lord Jim Knight, Camden councillor Theo Blackwell and Iain Wright MP (Shadow Minister for Industry). We were all there to talk about skills for the digital economy.

It’s a subject that has very much captured the imaginations of policy makers, media and the public, but which I think is too often focussed on children and schools. I certainly wasn’t alone in championing adult skills. Iain Wright was particularly keen to stress the need to help everyone update their skills in order to reap the opportunities from our emerging digital economy.

Perhaps the biggest digital news of the conference was Tuesday’s launch of the new Labour Digital Strategy – Number One in Digital, after Ed Miliband’s speech. It contains Labour Digital’s 82 crowd-sourced recommendations to transform Britain into THE digital world-leader through investment and reform in infrastructure, investment, regulation, skills and public services.

The report calls for a new national programme led by Digital Board of Britain’s digital leaders, reporting to the Prime Minister, to guide this change over the next decade. Other key recommendations include a National Fund for Digital Creativity to fund digital innovation across private, public and third sectors, and e-voting for all elections.

It is particularly gratifying to see the recommendation that the entire adult population should be equipped with basic digital skills by 2020, and the reference to our Digital Nation graphic and Digital Nation by 2020 report. Labour Digital has embraced our ambition to get 100% of people skilled in the next six years, and this recommendation was welcomed and supported by several members of the Shadow Government during the Conference. It feels like the first time the problem of basic online skills – and it’s wider implications – has been acknowledged, so fully, and by so many people, and the need to fund it properly acknowledged too.

I think historically it has always been much easier for the Labour Party to join the dots between digital skills being good for the economy, and good for communities and society too. Social justice has always been more palatable to Labour’s core audience, but I think now that message has almost transcended political agendas.

Our Digital Nation report also features in the Tech UK manifesto, and is both recognised and recommended by right wing thinktank Policy Exchange’s Tech Manifesto – who will be one of the ‘digital fringe’ leaders at next week’s Conservative party conference in Birmingham. The fact is that good ideas are good ideas, and I’m expecting to see similar commitments to the digital skills agenda next week. I’ll let you know.

Who knows – with momentum building so beautifully for digital inclusion, I might not even need to show up at party conferences next year!

Back with a bang

This blog has been a little quiet for a week or so, because I’ve been off on my summer holidays! Okay, I’ve done a bit of work, but it’s been a lovely break, and I started back with a bang last week as a witness at the House of Lords Select Committee on Digital Skills.

It was a two day investigation into the digital competitiveness of the UK, but on day two, the committee focussed it’s interest on digital inclusion, and their support for this agenda was fantastic.

At one point Lord Kirkwood even said that he thought there would be rioting in the streets if we didn’t get this stuff sorted out! I’m not entirely sure digital inclusion is set to trigger full scale revolution (and I think he was perhaps referring to social reform more widely) but it was great to see how well the issues were understood, and how passionate the committee was to find and support solutions.

The committee was led by Baroness Morgan of Huyton, and my fellow witnesses included David Hughes from NIACE, Martin Weller from the open University, James Thickett from Ofcom, Patrick Barwise from London Business School, and Phil Fearnley from the BBC. Together we laid out the picture of digital inclusion, those affected, the barriers, the challenges, what works and what doesn’t.

They were very interested in Tinder Foundation’s work and experience, and in the role local UK online centres play in engaging and supporting hard-to-reach communities.  I was very clear in expressing the need for investment, and the challenges community and voluntary sector organisations face in doing more to support vulnerable people (in multiple ways), for considerably less funding. Providing support for hyperlocal organisations to engage “people like me” in the communities is essential, and organisations like mine can bring the networked effect of coordinating and supporting this hyperlocal action with tools and online courses as well as leadership.

I quoted our Nation 2020 Report: A Leading Digital Nation by 2020 – Calculating the cost of delivering online skills for all and pointed out that the Government can afford to make a much bigger investment in solving digital exclusion over the next five year. And, that they can’t afford not to.

If you’re interested in this sort of thing, you can find out more about the Digital Skills Committee here, and watch the full recording of evidence here.

Now they’ve got the evidence, the question is of course what they plan to do with that knowledge. I for one look forward to seeing this formidable and highly engaged group of Lords and Ladies take up this mantel. Interesting times ahead.

Digital evolution – leaving nobody behind

We’ve just announced Tinder Foundation’s third annual conference – Digital evolution: leaving nobody behind – which will take place at the BT Centre in London on 19 November.  This year I’m keen to make sure we’re concentrating on the three main barriers to digital inclusion – motivation, skills and access.

If we can overcome these obstacles, I’m pretty convinced our vision of a 100% digitally included Britain can be realised. High employment, world class skills, better health, lower crime rates, improved education and booming business – it’s all within our grasp, and for everyone, if we look to target these barriers at a hyper-local level.  

The idea of the conference is for us to come together to share and develop fresh ideas for digital inclusion, and I’m really looking forward to talking to UK online centres and guests from the wider world of digital participation to galvanise and focus our collective action for 2014-15.  

We’re delighted to have new CEO of Go ON UK Rachel Neaman speaking, as well as founder of FutureGov, Dominic Campbell, joining us. Boasting years of digital experience and a track-record of innovation within the digital sector, I’m looking forward to hearing their insights regarding tackling the barriers to digital inclusion, and their vision for our future.  

Workshops are being developed in order to examine key themes and innovations, where delegates will be able to break out and brainstorm best practice, and their own barriers and solutions at grassroots level.  

For me, one of the highlights of the conference is always the chance to network and meet the people who work at the coalface of digital inclusion on a daily basis. It can be easy to forget with all the facts and figures, reports and policy changes, that it’s the people working within communities who really instigate change and inspire participation.  

I’ve said it before, and I think it’s worth repeating, but it’s people who help people – technology is just a tool to do it. And having so many of those people in one room is pretty special.    

If you want to be a part of this celebration of all things digital inclusion, then why not book your tickets now? Earlybird tickets are still available, so grab them while they’re hot! You can also read about last year’s conference here, and see what previous delegates said about it here.  We’re looking to make this year’s event even bigger and better.

I’m already excited to see you all there!

 

21st Century Libraries – Are we there yet?

Anyone who knows me will know that one of the things I am truly passionate about is libraries. I was honoured to be asked to speak at the 100 year anniversary of the Carnegie UK Trust last October (you can see my speech here) to celebrate the work of the ‘Grandfather’ of public libraries Andrew Carnegie.

One hundred years ago when Carnegie had his inspiration for libraries he envisioned buildings full of books which were free to access, the public free to discover, learn and educate themselves – as he himself did. A century later and public libraries can’t just be buildings with books in anymore, people want more. They want to research their family tree, apply for benefits and look for work. Libraries have to offer local communities wide-ranging services and support in life-critical areas from careers to health, personal and family issues to finances. And increasingly they need to do it both offline and online. I’m so glad that so many of our libraries are evolving with the needs of their users and the times we live in.

I am very keen for Tinder Foundation to be a part of the library ‘revolution’ as over half of UK online centres are based in libraries and really help to make a difference. We have been working closely with the Society for Chief Librarians (SCL) who are the strategic lead for libraries. It’s a partnership I am excited about.

Over the last few months our fantastic training manager, Aniela Kaczmarczyk, has been developing a workforce development programme for customer-facing library staff. It was commissioned by SCL and funded by the Arts Council. Working so closely with SCL has meant that we have been able to gain access to many front line staff we wouldn’t ordinarily have been able to reach, and they have all been both committed and inspiring.

The task was simple – develop a programme to help ensure customer-facing staff in libraries have the skills, knowledge and confidence to deliver the new public library Universal Information Offer.

It’s becoming increasingly important for local communities to have access to the internet – and the skills to be able to use it. As more and more services go online, library staff have to be prepared to support individuals to access information that can be very personal – and in some cases essential to someone’s quality of life.

It’s a tale we’re familiar with – the multiple demands on libraries and library staff as tutors, advisors, supporters and sign-posters. The good news is that there are some really great libraries out there doing amazing things.

Frankley Library, for example, is a centre for excellence specialising in the support of people with disabilities. They have dedicated training suites to support disabled people. Lancashire Libraries, are delivering digital skills training across the whole library authority with a focus on supporting job seekers and great partnerships with local Jobcentres. Southampton Libraries are a part of our NHS Widening Digital Participation programme working with MacMillan Cancer support to deliver training to inform volunteers and those affected by cancer.

In delivering the library workforce programme, and working with such fantastic library ambassadors, we’ve learned a lot about libraries ourselves.

● Libraries are an extremely valuable resource in the local community. The breadth and depth of support library staff provide on a daily basis is phenomenal. Like the community-led UK online centres local staff responding to local needs is essential.

● There is more to helping people access online services than helping them gain basic online skills. It’s about people skills, building trust, confidentiality, and knowing when and how to refer to other service and agencies.

● There is lots of good work already happening in terms of library workforce development, and consultation with frontline staff has been essential in creating and building a programme that can really share that best practice and build on existing expertise.

Our training programme is now coming to an end, and the 50+ library reps that Aniela has trained will now be responsible for engaging other library authorities in their region and cascading the training down library by library. The roll out will start in September and the expectation is all authorities will have trained 99% of their workforce by March 2015.

I for one will certainly be watching with interest to see how the training is put into practice on the ground. Libraries are brilliant. I hope we’ve played a small part this year in making them even better.

Six year olds and digital technology: it’s time for a grown-up conversation

I was annoyed to read today’s Guardian article “Ofcom: six-year-olds understand digital technology better than adults” and to hear a simplistic discussion on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. It reminds me of those awful meetings where people tell me digital inclusion is not worth worrying about as all young people know everything about the internet and they’ve all got smartphones, and we just have to wait until all the older offline people die. God give me strength.

The research being quoted is part of Ofcom’s Communications Market Report – that “measures confidence and knowledge of communications technology to calculate an individual’s ‘Digital Quotient’ score, or ‘DQ’”. The research report itself is fine, it’s the trivial DQ test and the shallow way that BBC Radio 4, The Guardian and Ofcom’s press team are promoting it that is so frustrating.

Under the heading “How tech savvy are you?” you work out your DQ via a series of questions to find your score. The questions involve: how much you know about 4G, Google Glass and 3D Printers for example; how much you talk to your friends and family about new technology or new gadgets; and questions about online activities such as watching TV shows, uploading photos and videos, SMS and instant messaging. Maybe the most worrying question is “I wouldn’t know what to do without technology” (Agree/Disagree) – which I disagreed with – I love technology and my gadgets but I know what to do if I didn’t have them. As you would expect, my DQ score is 129 and above average and 16 points higher than the highest scoring age group in the DQ chart – the 14 – 15 year olds.

The “children know more about technology than their parents” simplistic rhetoric was wheeled out again this morning on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. Although a bit of simple maths shows that the mothers of the “six year olds” (trumpeted in The Guardian) have an average age of 36. The average DQ score of a 36 year old is 103 and the DQ of an average six year old is 98 – even using the same silly metric, the parents have a higher DQ than their kids.

My main issue with this reporting is that using technology isn’t the same as knowing what it means to use it – skills aren’t the same as knowledge, digital society isn’t the same as 3D printers and Smart Watches. Being a person is about thinking, creating, communicating, building things – it’s not about clicking and gadgets. A great programmer is a great programmer because of their thinking skills and most importantly their ability to determine the outcome they want to achieve.

I have lots of respect for the work of Dr Ellen Helsper of the LSE, who has led research that shows any equation that says young people = good digital and old people = bad digital is just far too shallow to be useful in debates about the digital world we live in. Ellen says “The discourse around young people being tech savvy because they are online all the time and feel comfortable in a digital world is dangerous. It plays to the myth of young people as digital natives, as if there are no individual differences between children, it ignores the fact that research has shown over and over again that some young people require help, that even those who are confident are often digitally naïve and make rash decisions about where to go, who to talk to and what to do online. It takes away responsibility from adults (parents, educators, governments) in helping young people navigate and learn how to live in a digital world, a digital world that is our world, a world with which adults actually have a lot of experience.”

Emma Mulqueeny’s blogging about 97ers stems from her experience working with amazing young programmers through YRS, and being a parent of a 97er (someone born in 1997 or after). She says: “The 97ers are already immersed in this web of learning. ….  they are there playing, interacting, growing up, making mistakes, testing boundaries, making boundaries, exploring things they find interesting or funny and more importantly – sharing their discoveries. .. But it is not the internet that is doing this, it is the networked communities the children find online, people stripped of physical boundaries and prejudices they face daily in school and life, an open forum of communities they can opt into or out of.” Emma is talking about a digital world where young people are creating a very different community than I did when I was young – they are young people who are inquisitive and articulate, and that’s a long way from an Ofcom DQ of ‘knowing about 3D printers’ or ‘not knowing what to do without technology’.

I’m excited to know that the young people of today will be shaping the digital world that I will grow old in. They will shape that world with experiences different to mine and some of them will do brilliant, important, things with technology that none of us have even dreamed of. Some of them will be brilliant politicians, plumbers, charity leaders, entrepreneurs, teachers, chefs, nurses, programmers, data analysts, social workers, and gardeners. They will have the potential to use digital tools that make their, and other people’s, lives better and they will face new challenges and problems.

We are not robots – adults and children alike. We have different luck and different lives to one another. Ellen Helsper will be publishing research later in the summer that shows again, sadly, the massive gulf in the digital knowledge and expectations of children who do or don’t have the internet at home.

Yes, I love technology. Yes, young people have a difference digital experience that adults. Yes, we should embrace change. Yes, many adults constrain young people with out-dated constructs. Yes, digital is a tool for good and for evil.

Isn’t time we reject the shallow discourse about youth and digital, and have a grown up conversation about it?

Cracking Home Access

Motivation, skills, access: the three big barriers to people getting online to benefit from everything the internet has to offer.

Hopefully it goes without saying that Tinder Foundation – and our network of UK online centres – have made a significant impact when it comes to skills – more than one and a quarter million people have got the basic online skills they need in a UK online centre in the last four years.

When it comes to motivation, we’ve also done our part. Our eighth national Get Online Week takes place 13-19 October, and we estimate that around 50,000 people will be engaged to see what they can do online.

tablet2Day to day, our network does some amazing outreach work in places like schools, care homes, mosques, social clubs and community centres proving to those not convinced about the power of technology that it really can change their life.

As for access, the 5,000+ UK online centres throughout the country are an invaluable resource, but increasingly, that’s not enough. We need to get to grips with Home Access, and it’s proved a difficult – and expensive – nut to crack.

For people to really make the most of an online life, for the internet to help them feel less isolated, for it save someone money, or help them get back into work it has to be personal and that means in the home.

We know there are several key barriers to home access (both internet and devices) for many people. While the costs of devices are coming down, for those most in need of the benefits being online can bring, £100 for a tablet is still an unachievable goal.

Even for those who can afford it, the sheer variety of devices, the differences between them and what they all do can be a minefield – with many opting out of buying altogether, rather than spend their money on an inappropriate piece of kit.

Arguably the bigger problem is the cost of the connection to the internet itself. With the vast majority of broadband contracts being linked to telephone contracts, those on a fixed budgets, living with only a mobile phone they top up when they can, sustained and reliable connectivity at home is a pipe dream (no pun intended). For some, there isn’t a bank account from which to set up a direct debit. How do these people reap the rewards of getting online at home?

The team at Tinder Foundation have been trying some new approaches to see if we can bridge the gap and break down at least some of these barriers, our latest Home Access project, funded by BIS, provided UK online centres with a variety of devices, so people looking to buy a device can make sure they get something that fulfills their needs.

The Learn My Way website has also provided online tools to help people find the most affordable connection for their requirements.

The access nut is going to prove a tough one to crack but I think these sorts of pilots and trials are really going to help us figure out what people need and how best to get it to them. Indeed, the evidence is compelling, and you can read our full report here, or just meet some of the people we’ve helped try-before-they-buy, in this short video.

Funding for this kind of activity isn’t always easy to find, or maintain, but out of the three barriers I mentioned above, I think access is the one where corporate partners can have a pretty hefty impact.

Vodafone recently published an independent report – Mobile: A powerful tool for Digital Inclusion – and on the back of this, they’re working with us on a pilot research project. Together we’ll be targeting specific groups of isolated learners (providing both devices and a ‘mobile internet’ course) to try and track the impact of mobile devices on levels of both digital and social inclusion.

We are also working closely with other private sector partners on how to get the most excluded in society online at home. We’ll be announcing the details of these exciting projects in the coming weeks and months, so do keep an eye out!

Arguably, these are companies that have a vested interest in getting more people online and using their services, but I can tell you from personal experience that they’re also organisations with strong sense of social responsibility and I think it’s a big step in the right direction to helping those most in need find a way to joining those engaging with everything the web has to offer, from the comfort of their own home. (Assuming rural broadband gets sorted … ) This a big step in the right direction to getting everyone online by 2020.

A quick look at the new digital ministers

This week’s big news is obviously the reshuffle, and has left me thinking about whether the new Cabinet will be more or less supportive of digital inclusion.

It was bittersweet to see Matthew Hancock leave his role on skills, as we will miss his support, but I was very pleased that he has been promoted to join the Cabinet. He’s been been really supportive to what we do at Tinder Foundation, and was very kind to come along to our event just last week at the House of Lords to tell everyone how impressed he is with our work (you can read my blog on it here). I hope he’ll be supporting the digital inclusion agenda around the Cabinet table, and I wish him all the best in his new role.

There are few appointments which I will be keeping my eye on – obviously Nick Boles who is the new Minister for Skills Enterprise & Equality, responsible for adult skills and informal learning. I was pleased to see he’s looking forward to the new challenge in a statement he made earlier this week: “I am very excited to have a new challenge. I am determined to make sure that everybody can acquire the skills to be able to benefit from the economic recovery.”

I’ll also be following the progress of Esther McVey in employment – as about half of our annual 150,000 learners are out of work and looking for a job – Mark Harper in working with people with disabilities – half of all disabled people don’t use the internet – and Ed Vaizey who has added the responsibility for digital industries to his role at DCMS on culture and libraries.

It was also sad to see Nick Hurd leave the Cabinet Office. He has been a great champion of modernising the community sector, and supported us in our role in capacity building our 5000 hyperlocal partners. Nick Hurd was very modest on twitter saying how much he had enjoyed the role, whilst handing over that particular baton to Brooks Newmark.

I guess we won’t really know how much they support digital inclusion until the Autumn and of course next year when they publish their manifestos, so I’m looking forward to hearing more.