Digital exclusion to inclusion

Digital exclusion to inclusion With the internet becoming a more important part of everyday life, Emma Blee finds out how close we are to bridging the digital divide.

In the UK there are 10 million adults who have never used the internet, which means that more than a fifth of the population is digitally excluded.

Around four million of these people are among the most disadvantaged in society, 39 per cent are over 65 and 38 per cent are unemployed.

Under Labour’s rule, e-commerce entrepreneur Martha Lane Fox was appointed as the UK’s Digital Inclusion Champion in June 2009, with an aim to get the most socially and digitally excluded people in society online. She is also head of the digital delivery team, which was set up by the Coalition Government to address the problem.

In July, David Cameron and Lane Fox launched the ‘Manifesto for a Networked Nation’, which outlines ways to get everyone in the UK online by 2012 and contains the above statistics.

However, on the same day as the manifesto was launched, Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt announced that Labour’s target for speeding up broadband in the UK would now be pushed back from 2012 to 2015. Many people will therefore have a limited experience of the internet, even if they do gain access to it.

The manifesto highlights the potential benefits of having an online nation, including improved social interaction and an estimated economic boost of at least £22 billion to the UK economy.

It also states that those who are digitally excluded could be missing out on employment opportunities as 90 per cent of new jobs require computer skills and most employers advertise jobs online.

The economic benefits include increases in lifetime earnings for those with access to the internet, savings to individuals through online shopping and savings to government through efficiencies in service delivery.

David Cameron commented that promoting digital inclusion is “essential for a dynamic modern economy and can help to make government more efficient and effective”.

In Northern Ireland, the problem is dealt with by a digital inclusion unit, within the Department of Finance and Personnel. A spokesman for the unit said that two main goals need to be met to ensure digital inclusion in Northern Ireland.

Firstly, everyone should have the opportunity to enjoy the benefits that digital technology has to offer, through access to technology and learning the appropriate skills. Secondly, all aspects of service planning and public service delivery, such as nidirect, should be improved and all technology should be fully exploited.

“Only by taking action on both fronts can we ensure that all citizens, especially the disadvantaged, fully benefit from the use of digital technologies,” said the spokesman.

When asked what the unit is doing to help the elderly and unemployed to become digitally included, the spokesman pointed to the projects it supports.

One example is the department’s partnership with LibrariesNI. Each library provides free internet access and support to help people get online. MyGroupNI is another e-government initiative which aims to tackle digital exclusion. It was set up to urge non-profit making, voluntary and community organisations that would normally consider it too costly or challenging to maintain a website, to join in the digital movement. Those who meet the criteria will be provided with a free website.

The digital inclusion unit aims to get 78 per cent of the adult population online by 2014, which would be an increase of 14 per cent.

One objective within its plan is to get people interested in going online by promoting compelling and relevant content and services and highlighting the benefits of being online.

Northern Ireland-based company digimumsni is also playing a part in tackling digital exclusion. The business was founded by two local mothers who realised there were a significant number of women throughout the province who did not have the skills or means to access the internet.

Some mothers had children who were more digitally aware than they were and felt they didn’t have the expertise to monitor internet usage. The pair launched a website (www.digimumsni.com) in May and give advice on internet safety and parental controls.

They also recognised that there are many women in Northern Ireland who are running mini-enterprises on a part-time basis. Director Paula Kelly says that “a lot of these women have had no computer training and peer support aspect of the website appeals to them”. Websites such as this are helping to bridge the digital divide with 47 per cent of UK housewives now spending their leisure time online.

Digital inclusion in numbers

• 98% of people with an income over £41,600 had used the internet

• 97% of adults with a degree had used the internet

• 90% of new jobs require computer skills

• 48% of disabled people are offline

• 47% of those living in households earning less than £11,500 do not use the internet

• 45% of adults without formal qualifications used the internet

Source: Manifesto for a Networked Nation

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