On Wednesday evening I was on a train coming back from London and chatting to my colleague Alice about how important the internet, and good access to the internet, is to us personally. Alice had recently moved house and all her furniture was in storage, but she was happy as the broadband was connected and she had a beanbag to sit on.
Alice and I had been to an event where about 60 social entrepreneurs, business people and delivery projects from around the world had been discussing the Why and the How to connecting the last 4.4 billion people who still can’t or don’t use the internet.
In the UK we still have 10 million people who don’t have the basic digital skills to use the web. As part of my day job I get meet with many of the thousands of people that Tinder Foundation and our partners help every month, and I hear about the life changing effect the internet is having on new users who have: found work, saved money, been in touch with distant friends and relatives, no longer felt lonely, got healthier, and stopped rough sleeping.
Scaling that up, a vision of connecting the 4.4 billion people unconnected is mind boggling. Many of the stories, I heard on Wednesday, of lives transformed were familiar to me: people getting new skills so they can find useful work, people finding a voice, people linking to essential services. But other success stories were about how to use technology to solve very different challenges. For example, Instant Network School from Vodafone Foundation helps children displaced by conflict access education resources via tablets and the internet. We heard from Internet.org about infrastructure solutions, free data to use basic Facebook and other public services for mobile phones in the developing world, and about digital literacy.
There were common strands in our discussions. Such as technology is just the tool; what we really need to make change happen is to develop programmes importantly involving users and helpers that result in behaviour change. We talked about value and cost. In the UK I keep banging on about the people who just can’t afford the internet.
For many people still digitally excluded in the UK, just like people in some of the developing world, the choice is an internet connected device or something else – where the ‘something else’ may be food or travel costs to get medical help. It’s just like the prevent or cure agenda: we never get truly focussed on prevention when there are so many people who need curing. I often feel hopeful and frustrated in equal measure.
Bob Gann, from NHS England, and I gave a short talk on our Widening Digital Participation Programme. I brought it right back to the 4.4 billion people and told the story of just one of them – Ron, who used to live in a tent next to an A road just outside Hull.
Too often the big numbers obscure the fact each statistic is a person and each time they are empowered to change their life for the better that’s one more life improved. Ron’s story has been told to the UK Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt, and this shows that one small change in one life has the potential to change the opinion of the man in charge of the NHS. We have to look bottom-up but we also need to make sense of it top down, so we can scale change as well as learning from local practice.
Bob and I talked about the Tinder Foundation Network Effect. How the thousands of hyperlocal partners we work with in our network achieve more because they are part of that network. Yes, it’s about products and services and platform and grants – the things we provide. But it’s about more than that, it’s about belonging to something bigger. Ron was helped by Inspire Communities in Hull; Inspire Communities’ work is very important. Southampton Library, and Starting Point, and Cook E-Learning, and the Bromley By Bow Centre, and thousands of other hyperlocal partners work is very important. They all tell us they know that by working with Tinder Foundation their work, their expertise and their efforts are all respected and valued, and they also tell us that they feel part of something bigger. We are all part of something bigger. Together we have a bigger impact than just working alone. That’s the network effort.
Alice and I met people in India and South Africa who are working in a similar way to Tinder Foundation. We will keep talking. We now belong to a bigger network of people with a similar vision and tireless energy to keep going until we cross the finish line.
Yesterday’s event was hosted by Huawei, and they published a microsite a year ago with articles and further information about the 4.4 billion unconnected.
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Thanks Helen – two linked ideas really resonate with me in your post: the power of stories and of networks. On stories, how about a site like http://www.fabnhsstuff.net/ where people could post fabstuff about people using the Net, in a form that inspires others to think “We could do that”. That would provide good currency for network exchanges, particularly if combined with a quick mapping exercise to identify the best connectors and sharers
The key to getting people connected is a fit for purpose connection. Currently millions in the UK don’t have one, due to the wrong technology (phone lines) being used to deliver it. 10 million were supposed to be offline years ago, and despite all the funding and support the figure is the same. That is because connectivity hasn’t improved. All that has happened so far is that a few near cabinets can go a bit faster, and most of them don’t take the improved service because what they had was enough for their needs anyway. When are you going to see through the hype?
Thanks for this comment Chris. I’m keen to see that everyone in the country has good quality broadband access, and I know this isn’t the case in many parts of the UK, especially in rural areas. I’m just as keen that people with good access to decent broadband also get the confidence and motivation to use it. It’s not one vs the other; we need a big push on both.
The 10 million people you refer to, are people without basic online skills, and this is different to having poor quality broadband access. However, if you were to give those 10 million people a ‘decent’ broadband connection it doesn’t mean they would automatically start using the internet. There will still be people offline, because they don’t have the skills, support and confidence to use it.
According to the latest ONS stats on household internet access; four million UK households didn’t have an internet connection in 2014 . Of that four million, only 2% said it was because broadband wasn’t available in their area. This again illustrates that the quality of broadband isn’t always the main barrier.
I was, however, really pleased to see that connectivity has featured highly in the three main party manifestos. I hope whichever party comes into power makes it happen – as quickly and cost effectively as possible.
My blog was also a reflection on recent conversations with people working in some of the most digitally excluded parts of the world – in these places no-one has an internet connection, or if they do it’s as a result of a special project or trial or via mobile phones. In fact there are similarities, people who are not using the internet around the world and in the UK have another big barrier, Poverty.
We need equality of good broadband speeds for everyone in the UK, we need to support the rest of the world to have access to the internet, and we need to help people to use and benefit from the web.
Agree Helen, but as it was in the case of the missionaries who did so much harm in other countries (as well as good) I think we should put our own house in order before we go preaching to others. I wouldn’t put much faith in any party manifesto, we go through this farce every few years and it comes to nothing. What we need is all the grassroots people to join together and JfDI, and for organisations like yours to stop spouting useless statistics gleaned from stupid questions. The fact remains that we’ll never have a digital nation without the infrastructure. You don’t have to campaign to get people lessons to watch tv, or programme a remote control for sky. nor do you have to teach them to use the internet. If they want to, and if they have affordable access then they will do. Any funding available should go into getting the connectivity everywhere. Every home, every library, every public place. Free limited wifi access in all towns and cities to give them a taste. The second hand phones, tablets and computers mean that everyone can afford the kit. The same families that say they can’t afford the kit are probably paying £70 for sky. I have seen that happen many times. You should put that question in your surveys and you will see what I mean.. statistics can be made to say anything you like. And we all know how good you are at statistics. Use that talent to expose the hype that has become a digitalbritain superfarce.