“Goodness! I’m in a Digital Hall of Fame. I shall have to behave myself now”

That’s what Stephen Fry said when he was inducted into BIMA’s Digital Hall of Fame yesterday, and I was really honoured to join Mr Fry, and other luminaries such as Sir Tim Berners Lee, as a Hall of Fame inductee. It’s lovely to be recognised as a digital champion, and to be called “inspirational and influential”, but really I’m accepting this award on behalf of the fantastic people in all of the local grassroots UK online centres who work hard every day in helping people to use the web. Not only are these the people that voted for me, but they’re also the ones who are, without a doubt, doing all the real hard work in bringing the internet to some of the most deprived communities in the country.
If you’ve ever been to a UK online centre, or supported someone with very basic computer and internet skills, you’ll know just how tough a job it can be – and the wonderful people within the UK online centres network do it day in, day out, often without much recognition. So this is for all of you – you’re the real digital champions!

Thanks to BIMA and the Drum for the honour, and congratulations to all the other inductees. I’m proud to be in such good company.

Here’s a picture of me thanking you all last night when I got my award.  

The Olympics, volunteering and the dreaded ‘L’ word

That’s it! With a wonderful late flourish from Andy Murray at the US open last week, our golden Summer of Sport is over! I‘ve been as thrilled as the rest of country by the great achievements at both the Olympics and Paralympics (some I was even lucky enough to witness some first hand), but now the fanfare is dying down, like many I am being forced to consider that ubiquitous ‘L’ word – that’s right,‘legacy’.

While the politicians are facing questions about the sporting legacy of the games, especially for young people, what I want to know now is how we can sustain this new enthusiasm and respect for volunteering and volunteers.

A lot has already been said and written about the ‘Games Makers’, the army of 70,000 volunteers that helped crowds get around the Olympic park, drove athletes and officials between venues, and took on many other duties so that the games ran smoothly. Sebastian Coe said they stood ‘among the heroes of London 2012’. What I‘d love now is to see this warmth and appreciation for this group harnessed so we can encourage others to volunteer in communities.

It seems fitting then that last week I attended the launch of #WeWillGather, a great new initiative by Dan Thompson (and Lloyd Davis and Sophie Collard), who had such an impact with #riotcleanup last summer. For anyone who’s interested in giving even a little bit of time, it’s a great resource.

There are over 20,000 volunteers within the UK online centres network so I’ve seen first hand just how huge an impact they can have – our network simply wouldn’t run without them. This is why I hope, with the help of great resources such as the Do it website and Volunteering England, the volunteering spirit that has inspired us this summer will carry on supporting communities all over the country.

PS If you ever feel like saying thank you to the UK online centres volunteers you can post something on our Facebook wall and at least some of the 20,000 will see it.

It’s good to share – the third Social Digital research symposium

Yesterday, together with the LSE, we ran the third in the Social Digital Research symposium series which, as always, brought together a group of very clever people, and gave them the chance to talk about what they’re doing, make connections with others interested in similar things, and answer some important questions that will help us do things better in the future.

The theme of the latest symposium was making connections, and I think we certainly achieved this. I’ve called this blog “It’s good to share” as I think it sums up the feeling in the room yesterday.

Here are some highlights of the day:

As well as hearing from a number of really interesting speakers, who did the job of getting everyone asking questions and sharing, we also came away with some really solid answers to where we go next with measuring digital skills, and in turn how we know whether what we’re doing is working.  

It’s great to see the fantastic progress that these symposiums have made – just six months ago, we all talked about the fact that the ONS stats were no longer the right measurement, and now six months later (and after only three symposiums) we’ve got a clear plan of how we can measure things better – in a way which will make a real impact to everyone working within digital skills, and which will hopefully go some way to securing some much-needed funding to support it.

All the slides from the symposium are on the
Social Digital Research ning, and so if you’re not a member already and you’re interested in this kind of thing, I’d encourage you to sign up. It would seem a shame if our online symposium wasn’t just as lively as our offline one. Do go and have your say.


Being the ‘best in Europe’

It’s wonderful doing a talk and getting great feedback. Not just “pat on the back” feedback like this (which is nice):


The kind of feedback when you know that people in the room have changed their thinking because of something you’ve said. (It doesn’t happen to me often!)

Yesterday was one of those days. I did a talk was at Westminster eForum’s “Broadband Britain: funding, killer apps, and digital engagement” in Whitehall. The room was packed – apparently a new Secretary of State does that. The organisers were willing to mix together a debate about digital engagement alongside one about superfast broadband and all the technical stuff that goes with that. True to form I said I’d talk about People not Pipes (you can see my blog about that from last year here

In a nutshell areas with poor “normal broadband” infrastructure have high take-up – usually rural areas where the internet is a lifeline to services and communications – and poorer communities with relative good, fast and/or standard broadband infrastructure have low take-up – due to lack of skills, low confidence, fear of failure as well as fear of privacy, and a fear of the costs of broadband. I called for action on both the pipes as well as the people – we need investment in both broadband infrastructure and in support networks so that everyone is skilled to use it. If we work on both elements we can be the “best in Europe” and we will really drive economic growth.

The audience yesterday understood that £1bn public investment in a broadband infrastructure without a close link to an investment in the support networks was quite bizarre. And Julian Smith MP who was chairing the event said he would raise this with Maria Miller as a priority. I’ll keep you posted.

My slides as always are on Slideshare.

Universal Credit and the Select Committee – my ten pence worth

This weekend, I’ve been keenly following news of the Universal Credit Select Committee, and so ahead of tomorrow’s Commons debate (which I’ll also be keeping an eye on) I thought I’d have my say too.

One of the main concerns presented before the Select Committee, and one that will no doubt be debated tomorrow, is the fact that the Universal Credit will be built to be ‘digital by default’ – it will be designed for online channels, and will be managed and run online. Concerns have been raised about the 8 million offline people in the UK, and the 14.5 million who don’t have adequate skills, and the risks that they’ll fall through the cracks without the support they need to claim their benefits or keep their details up-to-date online.

It’s a bold move to build a flagship benefit service as digital by default, and so I can understand why people are concerned, but I think it’s the right approach. I talk all the time about how the internet can really open up lives, and by hook or by crook I’m determined to encourage as many people as possible to use it – and use it more. Building online services that people need to use is a great way of introducing people to the internet, and helping them to gain skills that will positively impact on other areas of their lives too. We released some research back in January that revealed that 73% of employers wouldn’t even interview those without computer and internet skills, so not only will people who are unemployed be gaining new skills by claiming benefits online, but they will also be making themselves more employable.

We know that community centres and public libraries (thousands of whom are our partners) can provide a local and low cost range of solutions. For those who need support – whether they’ve never been online before, want some help with their first claim or want ongoing help to gain more confidence with using online tools. For those who need access if they don’t have a computer at home. Labour MP Dame Anne Begg, chair of the Commons Work and Pensions Committee, said that recently she had been unable to find a broadband service for her own flat at less than £30 a month: “On the kind of income that many people on benefit have, that is completely out of the scope that they can afford,” she said. Getting online at home is of course the ideal, but UK online centres do exist as a local alternative when access at home isn’t a possibility.

Universal Credit is brave and ambitious and difficult, but I believe driving this new service to be digital by default is the right thing to do. We should be brave and ambitious too about improving the lives of people on welfare by giving them the digital skills they need to take part in a 21st century where it is inevitable that having digital skills will be as essential as reading and numeracy.