Get Online Week – working together for a digital nation

This week is our eighth national Get Online Week, and as you might expect, I’ve had a few thoughts about it I wanted to share.  This blog post is a guest post for the Government Digital Service (GDS) which you can read on their website here.  Alternatively, you can read on below…

Over the past ten years, a combination of a competitive broadband market and determined hard work at community level has seen the UK halve the number of people without basic online skills to ‘just’ 10 million people. The end is in sight, so I believe we should be ambitious and strive to ensure that (almost) everyone can take an active part in a digital nation.

High employment, world class skills, lower crime rates, improved education and booming business – it’s all within our grasp, and for everyone. There are three major barriers as to why people don’t use the internet: motivation, skills, and access. With motivation, or a perceived lack of relevance, being the reason most often cited by offliners.

Running between 13th and 19th October, the eighth national Get Online Week aims to inspire tens of thousands of people to go online and see what the internet could do for them – whether that’s finding a job, getting healthy, keeping in touch, saving money, making life a bit easier, or just having fun. More than 1,000 event holders have signed up to hold thousands of events, from Post Offices to mosques, cafes to community centres, job centres, social housing lounges, factories and many more.

This year the Get Online Week posters show real life learners with real life stories about what the internet has done for them, and you can read more about them on our the Get Online Week website. We hope these personal tales will help people connect with the campaign, and identify with someone like them who’s done something amazing with the help of technology.

Reaching more people with partnerships

These learners, however, are just part of what is in fact a huge Get Online Week team. This is a partnership campaign. It is delivered by community partners like the UK online centres network, who in turn are using it to approach and work with trusted community intermediaries – like supermarkets, Post Offices, Jobcentre Plus offices, faith groups and more – to reach the hardest-to-reach in the places they feel comfortable.

These relationships are also reflected on a national level, with Get Online Week’s key supporters including Argos, Barclays, the Post Office, NHS England, TalkTalk, Vodafone, Go ON UK and others. Each one is contributing in a different way. Argos, for instance, are launching a £20 offer of a tablet, training on how to use it, and a year’s free broadband from TalkTalk – all timed to coincide with Get Online Week. Talk Talk is launching a pilot to encourage older people to take the plunge to take up low cost home broadband with an easy to use tablet and lots of hand-holding and support from their local UK online centre. And, Barclays are really pulling out the stops with Get Online Week being promoted on all their ATM cash point machines and branch screens, as well as loads of social media channels.

Digital inclusion is an issue that affects every sector. Better digital skills for all means better, cheaper public services, a more competitive economy, and ultimately social justice. Get Online Week gives us the opportunity to work together to do something practical, which feels pretty special.

National leadership, local delivery

I want to stress that while all our wonderful partners are all equal, next week will be a success  in large part because of the hard graft, planning, enthusiasm and expertise of the thousands of local partners working to engage new people in digital activities, and to welcome and support them long after the campaign is over.

It’s the activity at a local level which changes behaviour and ultimately changes lives. This is where digital inclusion happens. I can’t wait.

Best of luck to everyone running an event. Let’s all keep in touch on Twitter – #GOLW14 – and make the biggest possible impact we can!

Digital changes everything, for everybody – not just the geeks

This week it’s been the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, and I popped along to talk digital with MPs and sector colleagues, and of course to compare and contrast with last week’s Labour offering.     

Again, what was fantastic here was the support from key people for digital matters in general. Ed Vaizey, Matthew Hancock, Jeremy Hunt, Francis Maude – these are people very much on the leading edge of this agenda, supporting it, shaping it, and understanding its nuances.   

I was delighted to hear even George Osborne check off technology and innovation in his speech as the ‘key to our future prosperity’, and heartened to hear Ed Vaizey say he wanted the Government to talk about digital more and more often. The latter was in a very interesting fringe about the Internet of Things.   

In its simplest form the idea of an ‘internet of things’ is a fridge that spots you’re out of milk, and automatically orders you more. Or a smart pill-box, that can tell your Dr if you’re taking your medication, and generate a repeat prescription. The implications, however, are much wider and far reaching than that.   

I was particularly struck by something David Evans from the British Computer Society said, that we were soon going to live in an age with more sensors in our homes than the UK meteorological sector has in the whole country. That’s pretty life changing stuff, and a vision of a new, efficient, competitive digital world that everyone should be able to choose to be a part of.   

The following discussion was interesting and wide-ranging, and I was struck by the number of Tory MPs – and Ministers – who really ‘get’ it. However, if there was a problem for the wider digital agenda at the Conservative party conference, it’s that the number of people who ‘get it’ seems limited.  It has not embedded in their general consciousness in quite the same way as it seems to have done in the Labour camp. There are staunch and committed supporters, yes, but for everyone else this is still seen as a technology issue – a bolt on. A matter for the Government Digital Service (GDS), all tidied away over there.     

I attended a fringe about the benefit system and was surprised that when asked what more needs to be done to help people get into work, the only mention of digital came from White Dee from Benefits Street, someone with recent experience of unemployment. This got me thinking that the internet is the norm for normal people but what I really want to see is digital at the centre of policy making – everywhere. I don’t want this to be a matter for just Francis Maude as Minister for GDS, or Ed Vaizey as Minister for Digital & Culture and Communications, because it is also pivotal to other key agendas – to Disability Minister Mark Harper MP, to Minister of Care and Support Norman Lamb MP, to Minister for Pensions Steven Webb MP – to everyone in every department.   

If we are going to be that globally competitive, fair and successful nation George Osborne described, digital is a cornerstone.

The fact is that this should not be about technology; it should be about policy. Digital changes everything for everyone and I’m looking to the Conservative early adopters to lead from the front, and bring the rest of the party along for the ride – up to the election and beyond.

 This time next year we will know the Government that the people have chosen. Whoever they are I really hope they understand the massive potential that technology can bring for positive change to our nation.

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?