I <3 Cows

Hello and a big welcome back after the holiday period. I hope everyone had a wonderful break and if you were working over Christmas and New Year, I hope it was a calm and cheerful time for you. I really enjoyed the festivities, but, most importantly, I had a chance to reflect on our work tackling digital and social exclusion and focus my mind on the crucial areas that should be at the forefront of our work. One of these areas is Rural.

Just before Christmas, I attended the Prince’s Countryside Forum with two of my colleagues and a member of the Online Centres Network, Paul Davies from Destinations@Saltburn. Together with Paul, we hosted an interactive workshop and I gave a lightning talk entitled ‘Digital: Opportunity or Frustration’. We were also able to chat to The Prince of Wales, and I was interested to hear his thoughts on rural and share mine with him.

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One of the things that really stood out for me, was a lady who spoke at the event. She’s a farmer and she knew that from an early age she wanted to work with cows. “I love cows, I always have” is how she opened her talk. But her chosen career path presents many challenges. For starters, where she’s based is so isolated, she finds it hard to meet and interact with other people. She can’t even begin to think about digital inclusion when there are other such pressing issues, like isolation.

This made me realise just how big a social challenge rural is. It made me ask myself, what are the biggest challenges in rural areas and how can we help tackle them?

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When we talk about digital and social exclusion, we often focus on the urban environment where poorer people live. But people in rural areas also have big hurdles to jump, such as isolation – being so far from places where they can go to develop their skills – as well as availability of broadband.

Solutions

There are things being done. For example, the National Farmers Union are lobbying for fast, affordable and reliable broadband and mobile coverage for farmers, growers and their rural communities. Broadband helps rural businesses to thrive. It helps them to be more efficient; attract more customers. The centres participating in our Prince’s Countryside Fund project are helping rural businesses to do more with digital, and in year two – which we’ve just started delivering this month – there’s also focus on individuals, Digital Champions and community organisations.

Some of our centres based in rural areas are a member of our Online Centres Specialist Rural Network. Nyree Scott is a centre manager who works in rural areas running and working in many centres. She does outreach work, as do many centres in the network, bringing internet, devices and the power of online to individuals who would otherwise be left behind. In outreach work, online learning platforms, like Learn My Way, are ever so important, because it means that everyone can be supported wherever and whenever they need it.

The areas of teleworking and telehealth are opening up massive opportunities for people in rural areas that just weren’t there before. The ideas of being able to work from home or a specific location, and being able to provide healthcare remotely, through the means of digital technology, are going a long way in improving their quality of life. But that’s been talked about for the thirty years I’ve been listening!

Worlds apart but closer than we think

Often when we think about rural locations we think about places here in the UK. We definitely don’t think about places like California, especially with it being the home of Silicon Valley. But towards the end of last year I read a blog post about a project taking place there called: Bridging California’s Rural/Urban Digital Divide with Mobile Broadband.

More and more farmers in rural California and relying on tech to make their business more efficient and environmentally friendly through precision agriculture. But many rural communities there suffer the same lack of reliable, fast mobile broadband that we do here, and this means that many rural economies there are falling behind.

The project aims to tackle this issue by collecting data on mobile broadband performance in a specific area – Yolo County – and comparing that performance to what mobile providers claim they deliver, and what farmers actually need for precision agriculture. This information will be collated into a report and presented to state officials to inform public policymaking on rural broadband.

A really interesting project, and something I wonder if we could replicate here.

What does rural mean to you?

The Oxford Dictionary defines Rural as: “In, relating to, or characteristic of the countryside rather than the town.” I am quite sure that many of you would associate rural with ‘old-school’ farming and isolation, and define it as unconnected, perhaps even distant. With better connectivity and better transport links, it doesn’t have to be this way.

The online world can revolutionise the farming industry, revolutionise rural businesses and revolutionise rural life as a whole. With a little collaboration from those willing to help, I am sure we can make this revolution happen.

If we could do that, my friend from the Prince’s Countryside Forum wouldn’t have to travel to London to share her love of cows – she could get online and share it with the world. But I’m sure, as with all things digital, she would still like to come and meet Prince Charles in person, and balance her online and offline worlds to suit her.

Ditching devices? We don’t need to detox

I returned to work this week after being on holiday for a fortnight. I felt relaxed and ready to get back into the swing of things. I sat down to catch up on all the digital inclusion news that I may have missed while I was abroad and I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the key finding from Ofcom’s annual Communications Market Report. The headline: “Fifteen million UK internet users have undertaken a ‘digital detox’ in a bid to strike a healthier balance between technology and life beyond the screen.”

I thought it was a joke.

After chatting to my colleagues I realised that it was all true. On one side of the spectrum, in the UK there are 12.6 million people who lack the very basic internet skills; on the other side there are 15m who are so sick of technology that they’re purposefully spending time away from it. The question I have is: why would anyone want to do this?

The Ofcom research says: “The [research] reveals how our reliance on the internet is affecting people’s personal and working lives, leading many to seek time away from the web to spend time with friends and family.”

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Image courtesy of Ofcom

I don’t think this is the reason. I think the reason that so many people have decided to spend time away from the web is because it’s the ‘fashionable’ thing to do. There may be some people who genuinely believe their addiction to tech is affecting their lives, but to me, the problem is with the person, not with technology.

It’s all about balance. All of the digitally included population can choose how much (or how little) digital channels they engage with.

Many people spend more time than they should online because they have a deep-rooted ‘fear of missing out’. Addiction is human nature and technology simply presents new options for this.

The internet makes things easier

Thinking about when I was on holiday for the past two weeks, the idea of going through it without the internet just seems absurd. Technology has been developed over time to help make our lives easier, and I genuinely think that it does. I was able to do my check-in online before reaching the airport, I had all of my travel documentation stored on my phone instead of printing out masses of paper, and even when I reached my holiday destination I was able to do things like look up a TripAdvisor review of a restaurant we thought looked nice to see if it would be a good place to eat. Another thing that I did with my Kindle was download an audiobook before a long train journey, so I could listen to it whilst still being able to take in the gorgeous scenery outside the window.

I didn’t spend my whole holiday stuck to my tablet/phone though – hence why I managed to miss the launch of Ofcom’s report – because I know that it’s OK to not be on Twitter replying to tweets, and I know it’s OK to not reply to an email immediately as soon as it comes through. If something is that important and needs an immediate response, the person will call me.

Smart-snubbing

One aspect of the report that I found particularly interesting (and also quite entertaining) is that 26% of adults have sent texts or instant messages to friends/family while in the same room. Can you believe it?

Smart-snubbing

Image courtesy of Ofcom

And 40% of adults (that’s four in every 10 people) felt they’d been ‘smart-snubbed’ at least once a week, with 17% saying it happens to them on a daily basis. Up until now I had no idea what smart-snubbing is – it means to ignore someone because you’re too engrossed in your smartphone or tablet. This is a prime example of obsession.

To all the ‘digital detoxers’ out there I say, if you want to visit or talk to your friends and family more, just do it! If it’s not possible because they’re in another country, like my son for example, technology isn’t a hindrance, it becomes an enabler. It means I can use services like instant messaging to get in touch with him and make calls through data and WiFi without the big phone bill that used to come with international family contact. I’d never dream of going on a ‘digital detox’ because it would mean not being able to do things I need to and want to do.

Tuesday poll

Yesterday we put a poll on the Tinder Foundation Twitter account asking whether our followers make an effort to spend time away from their phone and the internet. 42% of respondents said that they do, whilst 58% said that they do not. I’d be interested to chat to those who said they do, to find out exactly why they think that they need to.

The internet makes our lives easier in so many ways and to me, giving that up intentionally seems absurd. Maybe my earlier hypothesis was right; maybe the ‘detoxers’ really are just doing it because giving technology up is the ‘in’ thing to do. If that is the case, I can’t wait to see what fad comes next.

Take a look at Ofcom’s Communications Market Report 2016.

#LoveLibraries

Wow. From the first moment I stepped into Manchester Central Library I was impressed. I visited another English city’s central library recently and they said, with a wistful look in their eyes: “If only we could become like Manchester Central Library”. Now I know why.

The beauty of libraries – like all UK online centres – is their diversity; the frustration is … their diversity. However, that long list of things that some libraries want to be or that some libraries want do, Manchester Central Library ticks them all.

  • An impressive space, well used. ü

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  • A blend of old, heritage spaces and modern services enabled and enhanced by technology. ü

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  • A virtual archive wall, designed for co-use by young and old people together. ü

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  • A bustling cafe embedded amongst the digital archives. (Including all maps now digitised.) ü

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  • A business library and support service for businesses. ü

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  • A music library where you’re encouraged to be noisy. ü

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  • 3D printing facilities. ü

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  • Lots and lots of people using it. ü(5 million people a day)

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  • A media lab with a weekly session for teenagers to learn coding. ü
  • Drop in support for basic digital skills. ü
  • Human beings smiling and helping. ü

Our Digital Libraries Hub (#digilibraries) is becoming the virtual place to go to talk about digital inclusion and libraries. And later next month I’ll be talking about the role of community assets – such as public libraries and the community centres in the UK online centres network – in deploying digital to tackle social challenges.

In the meanwhile, if you find yourself in Manchester, do pop into the Central Library, as I think you’ll say “wow!”

Obamacare: Cash poor, health poor, digital poor. Can we help? Yes we can

A few bugs in the Obamacare website is not the real story here. It’s the fact that, according to Pew Internet, 48 million Americans don’t use the internet at all and millions more can’t do online transactions. Tinder Foundation is a UK non-profit with a proven solution to help millions to get online and use Government services. A year ago I would have said that our success wasn’t relevant to this story unfolding over the pond but now I know that it is – the stats tells the story. In the US and the UK the people who are offline are basically the same demographic and have the same barriers: 50/50 of offliners are over/under 65 years of age; around 40% live in households on very low incomes; and about 50% have a low educational attainment (no high school diploma in the US and don’t have 5 GCSEs in the UK). Lack of perceived relevance and not having the skills to use the internet are the two main barriers. If the problems are the same then the solution could be too.

The correlation between those who are the ‘digital poor’ – who don’t and can’t use the web – and poor health is huge. Just looking at life expectancy is a clear indicator: in London the average age at death ranges from 71 in Tottenham Green to 88 in Queen’s Gate and in Washington DC life expectancy for the poor is 71 years and for the education professional it’s 83 years.

The cost of healthcare is not something we have to worry about in the UK, we’re lucky to have the NHS so much so we often take it for granted. If you fall ill in the US it’s down to you to foot the bill – unless you have health care insurance. It is estimated that between 32-50 million Americans don’t have any cover and with the average visit to the emergency room costing £780/$1,265 it can be expensive. Unsurprisingly the number one reason for bankruptcy in the US is health care costs. So Obamacare is there to help people who are cash poor, and who will in all likelihood suffer health inequality, and will also suffer digital exclusion.

Tinder Foundation is lucky to be working with NHS England to tackle the ‘digital poor’ so that they can benefit in the drive for better health information, health prevention, and more conversations about health – all to be online. Our work with our 5000 hyperlocal partners in the UK online centres network will increase the web literacy for those digital poor so that both have the skills to use it and know that it can improve their and their families’ health. Tie that together with essential tools such as the free Learn My Way online courses helps people to learn as well as local partners to track that learning using the data analytics. I think this is a model that could help Americans to not just register for Obamacare but also to access online information to keep them healthy too.

We’ve helped over 1 million people at a unit cost of £30/$50, and I know our model could work for much higher numbers of people where there is a collective will to make it happen. This kind of effort, at the kind of scale that’s needed, takes time, fantastic partnership building on the ground, and persuasive and focused leadership.

It’s easy to see that the introduction of Obamacare should benefit millions of people. Stop talking about the bugs. Bugs in a website are a temporary problem and I’m sure there are hundreds of programmers busily fixing it right now. It’s the 48 million Americans who don’t use the web that is a more difficult problem to fix.