The rise of mobile isn’t YET the answer for digital inclusion

At the Fourth #socialdigital Research Symposium yesterday Robin Spinks from RNIB showed us all the huge impact mobile devices have on his life. When he’s at a presentation of some sort, he uses his iPad to take a photo and enlarge it so that he can see the words on the screen from his seat. It just reaffirmed the anecdotal evidence, and the instinctive feeling that I have that smartphones and tablets are a game changer for digital inclusion.

There’s no halting the rise of mobile.  On Wednesday this week Apple announced that sales of Apple Macs were down 22%, and sales of iPads has risen by 48%. By 2016, there will be more than 1.5 billion smartphone units globally, compared to 350 million PCs. (Source: Business Insider Intelligence)

I love mobile technology, but despite these impressive statistics, it’s not yet the silver bullet for digital inclusion, and although there’s lots of anecdotal stories (like Robin’s) that it’s helpful, we don’t yet have the evidence to prove it.

Ofcom’s 2012 Communications Market Report says that just 3% of smartphone users rely solely on this one device to connect to the internet, but although 55% of people in socio economic group AB use their mobile phone to go online, this drops to just 33% among socio-economic group DE.

The recently published Government Digital Strategy says there is no correlation between owning a smartphone and income, with 39% of mobile internet users earning less than £12,500, so interestingly it is usage rather than ownership that is linked to income and I would hazard a guess that a great deal of this is related to issues around data. To ensure smartphones and tablets are affordable enough to be useful, it’s important that we invest in a better universal and free wifi provision throughout the country (and I’m not normally a pipes person!).

We also need to make sure that the rise of the mobile device doesn’t have a negative impact on digital skills. In the age of Universal Credit, being able to play Angry Birds or update your Facebook status on the go will not be enough – more than ever, people will need to be able to fill in forms online, bank online, check their benefits online, and we need to support people to gain these skills, both through mobile and less mobile devices like PCs.

So mobile technology isn’t the silver bullet just yet but there are some pretty good things about it. With this in mind, on Monday we launched the first of our courses that works properly on a smartphone and tablet. You can find the course, Make Money Work, here (do try it out on your mobile device). In time, all of our courses will not only be mobile friendly, but will support people to use mobile technologies to make the most of the online world.

What mobile definitely does represent is a great opportunity, allowing us to reach whole new audiences who cannot – or do not want to – benefit from fixed broadband and who find the whole “keyboard and mouse” thing clunky and not useful. It will mean we can develop new, better services that can be available to people through mobile devices, wherever they are. We need to make sure we can keep up with the heady rate that new mobile technologies are developed and ensure that everyone has the confidence, skills and access that they need to use them. By doing that, we may begin to see the true impact mobile technology can have on closing the digital divide maybe not in 2013 but sometime in the not too distant future.

We are the champions – of the online world

This week I’ve been thinking about champions. When Queen sang about champions, they sang about winners. A champion isn’t just an advocate for a cause, they’re also a winner – an expert willing to share their expertise. And I’m thinking about it this week because of the work of a new group of champions from the UK online centres network.

These are tech-savvy centres who have come together to help other community organisations in their areas to improve their use of digital technologies. Over the next few months, they’ll be using the new Community How To service – – to introduce these organisers to some of the tools which could help them do more in their local community – things like fundraising, project management, volunteer management, and impact evaluation.

One of our champions, West Harton Action Station in South Shields, has put together a series of workshops and invited along a whole host of community groups. Local people getting involved will include representatives from older people’s action groups, tenant associations, various clubs and women’s groups. The focus of their sessions will be on websites and social media – helping each group build a digital profile that can help them engage both users and potential funders. Volunteers will work with each group after their workshop to create a vibrant, active and most importantly ongoing digital presence.

It’s ironic that it’s the very tiny organisations that are really driving the original ‘big’ society. And it’s among these very small, often self-started groups that digital capabilities are often lowest, and furthest down the to do list. They’re exactly the people and organisations who can benefit most from Community How To, and the tools and experiences shared there by other community groups. They’re also the very hardest people to reach, and to persuade to try something new.

That’s where champions really do come into their own. There isn’t another way to identify these very local groups, to contact them, strike up a conversation about the potential of digital tools, what’s out there, and how it could help them do what they do.

Following Queen’s lyrics, it’s my hope that these champions – like West Harton Action Station – will mean there are far fewer community group ‘losers’ when it comes to technology.

You can follow the champions’ work – and success stories – on Twitter via #communityhowto and at @communityhowto. If you know a local group – or group of groups – who might benefit from Community How To, get in touch with the champions via

Digital inclusion tips for social housing providers in 2013

I’ve talked on here before about my work with social housing providers, so I thought you might be interested in a blog I wrote for the Guardian Housing Network about how to make 2013 the year for digital inclusion:

Six steps for improve digital inclusion in 2013

2013 is going to be a big year for digital inclusion in the housing sector. From the end of this year tenants will need to start claiming their benefits online, and so housing providers can no longer avoid the shift to digital. Over the past year I’ve helped a number of organisations with their digital strategies, and I’ve picked up a few tips along the way of how to implement a digital strategy that I hope will help you and your organisation in 2013.

Embrace digital

Wherever you are now, soon you will be a digital business. The future will be digital because your customers will demand it of you. The sooner you accept that, and start making the moves towards becoming a digital organisation, the easier the process will be for you, your staff and your tenants.

Think digital – not just digital inclusion

If you start the process by thinking about how you are going to become a digital organisation, bringing tenants along with you will be a lot easier. Your digital strategy will have a positive impact across your business, helping you work more efficiently and deliver a better service as well as helping your tenants to become more financially, socially and digitally included.

But remember – it’s a change programme, not a technology one

It’s easy to get consumed with the tools and the technology you’ll want to use to support your new digital business, but to be successful your digital strategy needs to be about winning the hearts and minds and staff and tenants as well as putting the pipes in.

Share your knowledge

Creating a digital strategy from scratch can be pretty daunting, but you’re not the first provider to go through it, and there are plenty of organisations out there who are happy to share their expertise. TheDigital Housing Hub is a great place to start, and you’ll find lots of others who are happy to share tales of what they’ve done, as well as their own digital strategies.

Address the main barriers

We know the main barriers that prevent people from using the internet are motivation, skills and access, so to be successful in supporting your tenants you need to address all three, without overemphasising any of them. It’s easy to see broadband for all as the golden ticket, but without the need to go online, or the skills to use the internet confidently, it’s likely residents will continue to feel excluded. Supporting residents to improve their skills isn’t always easy, but there are organisations who are experts at it, including UK online centres, Digital Unite and Age UK, so seek out advice and support when you need it.

Know your tenants

It’s really important to understand your excluded residents, and target them carefully. If it’s parents of school age children, then supporting them to find school places online or to help their children with learning can be the carrot they need to improve their own skills. Universal credit will be a big stick to encourage tenants to improve their skills, but providing some carrots as well will help makes the journey easier for everyone.

Start quickly – and start now

My main piece of advice, and the one that I think is the most important, is to start quickly and to make small changes today. I’ve seen examples of housing providers moving all payslips online, or giving senior managers tablets to help make their work easier. By taking little steps, and ensuring digital becomes embedded within the organisation, the big steps will feel a lot easier.


The Digital Housing Hub also saw it’s 500th member register yesterday, so if you’re working in the social housing sector and want to share what you’re doing or ask questions of others who are in the same position, do go and register today. 

The people vs pipes debate kicks off again

As my first blog of 2013, I wanted to wish Happy New Year to you all. 2012 was a fantastic year for me personally, and for Online Centres Foundation as an organisation, but of course I’m confident that 2013 will be even better.

To kick off the year, on Tuesday the Policy Exchange released a report called The Superfast and the Furious, which addresses how the government should approach broadband policy in the future.

The 87-page report is heavy reading for the first full week back of the year, but if you’re interested in the people vs pipes debate it’s definitely worth taking a look.

The report argues that, rather than focussing on the race to get superfast fixed broadband everywhere, from 2015 the government should focus on helping the 10.8 million people who are not online, and support small business to make more of what the internet can offer.

Other points that the report mentions are:

  • Only a third of people are confident that they could choose the best broadband deal for their household, and people are as bothered about price and reliability in their connection as they are about speed.
  • Two thirds of people think basic broadband for the whole country is more important than chasing very fast broadband speeds in some areas.
  • People are divided on whether it is important to pursue fast connectivity, even if it means more masts and street cabinets, or to preserve neighbourhoods and the environment, even if it constrains speeds.

I’ve always been a ‘people’ over a ‘pipes’ person. Of course, we need the infrastructure,  but without investing in digital skills we’re actively excluding a whole group of people who just don’t have the confidence to use computers and the internet. The fact that the report focuses on how much people are struggling to find the right broadband deal for them shows just how exclusive the online world can feel to those who aren’t part of it. I’m all for fast broadband – and I reap the rewards of it myself at home  – but I know it’s not the answer in itself, and it needs to be accompanied by investment that will help people use everything the new pipes can bring.

The debate is one that I’m sure will continue to rage, but it’s great to see 2013 kicking off with a point to the people. You can read the report here, and do let me know what you think.