Redefining the Digital Divide


Next Tuesday (28th January) I’ll be sitting in a television studio at The Stock Exchange debating, live on the internet, the theme of Redefining the Digital Divide. The webinar is at 10am GMT to enable people living in earlier time zones to tune in, and I was told yesterday people from all of the world have already registered to watch. It’s interesting that the panel will be linking up with thousands of people around the world using the power of the internet and at the same time talk about the millions who are not benefiting from the web. Those millions – 11 million in the UK without basic online skills, and 4.8 billion people in globally who have never used the internet.

We live in a world where the majority of the global population haven’t used the internet: around a third has and two thirds haven’t. (See World Internet Stats for details.) There is an ever-increasing need to ensure citizens and businesses have the access, skills and motivation to take advantage of technology. Because if they don’t, entire countries will suffer from the digital divide.

Back in September last year I was asked to contribute to a report published by the Economist Intelligence Unit about my views on how we can drive an accelerated increase in basic online skills across the globe. You can find the ‘Redefining the digital divide’ report here, and if you haven’t read it yet I recommend it. It looks at the parameters of the problem, lessons from around the world, compares the strategies of different countries in addressing the digital divide and lays out the challenges ahead of us.

As a follow up to the report I have been invited to the London Stock Exchange to take part in that webinar to discuss these issues in more depth next week. Hosted by the Economist and chaired by Denis McCauley, Editorial Director of the Economist Intelligence Unit, I will be joined on the panel by:


  • Lord Young, the Prime Minister’s adviser on Business & Enterprise

  • Tim Watkins, Vice President of Huawei Western Europe

  • and Clive Richardson, Director of Policy at Go ON UK.


We will be talking about how we can provide people with the skills they need to cross the divide. It’s interesting that this debate is being led by The Economist, who recently published an article “Coming to an office near you” that told us the effect of today’s technology on tomorrow’s jobs will be immense—and no country is ready for it. It’s good to have this new voice in the debate, saying that technological innovation won’t feel better for everyone in the short term.

Digital inclusion, people and pipes, impact and partnership, are all things I’m passionate about, and I’m very much looking forward to next week’s discussion.  While I’m always going to favour new action over old debate, this is a chance to really take a look at ourselves in a global context, improve our understanding of what is an ever-fluctuating issue, and agree on some clear and possible actions.  

You can watch via The Economist website, and you can join the conversation on Twitter, using the hashtag #digitaldivide. Why not put 10 – 11 am GMT in your diary for Tuesday 28th January and watch the panel debate on your laptop or tablet from the comfort of your own office or armchair, and interact via twitter.

Proud to be British

It was great to hear Francis Maude’s commitment yesterday that by 2015, the UK will be the most digital government in the G8. The team at GDS have been doing great things in their quest to make services open, accessible and easy to use.

The first wave of 25 exemplar services to be delivered digitally by default will support an estimated 1.3 million students applying for loans, 46 million people registering to vote and 10 million self-assessing their taxes. Government savings from IT will be £500 million this year and much more is predicted post election – £1.7 billion each year after the election (but that’s savings for “the Exchequer, citizens, and businesses”).

I’m a fan of digital by default – I know digital provides us with better, more efficient and more convenient services. Digital can be more open and provides the opportunity for citizens to collaborate more with Government. Digital by default policy as it’s implemented will be a carrot to encourage some of the 11 million people without digital skills into learning more so they can access some of these services and digital Government for some will be their gateway to the wonders the web will bring them.  We now know too, from our hyperlocal partners’ experiences of Universal Jobmatch, that mandation of online services will only motivate some people to go online and stay online.

It’s great to think that we’ll lead G8 countries as well as seeing others, such as New Zealand take inspiration (and code) for their new Government site, I hope Maude and his overseas counterparts see the work GDS, Go On UK, Tinder Foundation and others are doing and follow our collective example and embed digital inclusion into their Government Digital Strategies. “Action 15” in the UK’s Digital Strategy is a good start: “Collaborate with partners across public, private and voluntary sectors to help people go online”, it says:

Departments will:

  • appoint a senior digital inclusion lead accountable to their departmental digital leader where it has been agreed with Government Digital Service (GDS) that this is relevant to their business

  • agree the resourcing they will provide to the cross-government digital inclusion team based in GDS, which will collaborate with partners across public, private and voluntary sectors

  • build digital inclusion into policy making and use government digital and assisted digital services to help people go online

GDS will:

  • publish a set of digital inclusion principles by early 2014

  • work with departments and partners to agree our approach to digital inclusion and publish a digital inclusion strategy in spring 2014

  • collaborate with government and cross-sector partners to establish and support programmes that help those who are digitally excluded

  • evaluate, monitor and share what works

I’m proud that we have a Digital Strategy in the UK. I’m proud that other nations are looking to British endeavours for inspiration. I’m proud that the UK Digital Strategy includes an Action that supports an ambition that all citizens should be able to take advantage of all the benefits that digital can bring, and a clear statement that empowering people to go online helps to “tackle wider social issues, supports economic growth and close equality gaps”. And I’ll be proud when these ambitions become reality.

Starting to share

Like pretty much everyone else in the New Year, I’m thinking about new ideas and resolutions – not least because our Start Something campaign is just round the corner. So in it’s honour,  I’ve been thinking about what I could start.  And it began with me tidying my bedroom.  

What I found beneath the general detritus was loads and loads of books – old favourites, book group reads, Christmas presents (I won’t specify from what years), and even old exam revision books I suspect my sons of abandoning out of sight. Now while I struggle to throw anything out, I consider throwing out books a particular sacrilege. Like Heinrich Heine said, if you start burning books you’ll soon be burning people.  And if you start throwing them out you’re throwing away someone else’s potential joy, knowledge and understanding – all contained within those pages.  

So how can I put these resources to good use? Book recycling? Charity shops?  Volunteer libraries? Perhaps. How many others are like me with hundreds of books gathering dust? How can we pool more of our existing knowledge, full stop, instead of keeping it in piles around our (proverbial) bedrooms? As ever, I can look to the UK online centres network to inspire me.

Victoria Rodney from the Mercy Foundation Centre in Wandsworth set up a homework group on a Friday night, inviting her childrens’ friends round saying she’d help them with their school work for the next week. She had a few text books and some old York Notes. Now 125 kids turn up to her centre every week for homework clubs, and more second-hand books and textbooks have been donated so Victoria and her volunteers can help them (in fact that’s where my son’s revision books are going this week), and the computers are fired up for research and essay writing.

So what does this mean for us in 2014? Tinder Foundation’s mission is to make good things happen through digital technology, but the network effect of UK online centres means that what we really do is to help good people make good things happen for their communities. Technology is important (even essential to our modus operandi) but secondary. It can be a catalyst, an organisational tool, a resource, a marketplace, or a library of knowledge.  And it can be very powerful.  

Undoubtedly, technology will be the key to bringing my vague post-Christmas musing of Sheffield book-pooling to some sort of life at some point, but Victoria’s example is inspirational. It’s something we’re particularly interested in at Tinder, because we believe both technology and communities of people are key in the creation of new, dynamic, relevant and high-quality learning.

Co-creation is another example of this, and is a live project for us in 2014. Our E-Reading Rooms pilot supported local centres, interest groups or clubs to follow their hobbies, collate resources and look to the online world for paths to help them progress. This year we’re extending that co-creation work with local partners who are creating new online courses that can extend and amplify our learning website Learn my Way – turning it into more of a learning platform (or MOOC) where hyperlocal learning data will sit alongside courses like Online Basics.  

As an example, one pilot partner is working with teenage mums in the North East, and together they are creating an online health course which focuses on post-natal depression.  For this group the process of creation will probably be as important as the process of doing the course, but once completed, others will be able to use it and share it.  That’s pretty exciting stuff – and you watch this space for more information over the coming weeks.  

Between 3 and 21 February we’ll be encouraging local people to start something new, something different, something useful or just something fun – all online.  Hundreds of events will take place across the country targeting the digitally excluded or the digitally reticent, covering online health, job hunting, keeping in touch, saving money, and much, much more.  

Why not join in?  If the the New Year is all about making a new start, let’s all take some inspiration from the likes of Victoria, and choose to be self-starters and self-sharers in 2014 – online or offline.  And let’s see what we can achieve together.  

Happy New Year!