Back to home page click here

MY INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY
ARTICLES IN 2005

Since 2003, I have written regular articles on information technology for Connect, which used to be a separate trade union and in January 2010 became a section of the larger union Prospect. Originally the magazine was called "The Review" and then in April 2004 it was renamed "Connected". The text of all these articles, with relevant hyperlinks, are filed on my web site and this page brings together all those from 2005. If you would like to comment on any of them e-mail me.

Jan/Feb 2005 The Wave And The Web
March 2005 The Big Switchover
April/May 2005 E-government Rules, OK?
June 2005 The Hitchhiker's Guide To Television
July/Aug 2005 The New World Of Social Media
September 2005 Next Generation Networks
October 2005 The Barbarians Are At The Gate
November 2005 The Deepening Of The Digital Divide


Over the Christmas/New Year break, we were all horrified by the tsunamis in south-east Asia. Our Internet columnist Roger Darlington examines the role of the Net in responding to such an unprecedented disaster.

THE WAVE AND THE WEB

The Boxing Day earthquake off Indonesia and the resultant tsunamis across the Indian Ocean resulted in the greatest humanitarian disaster of our lifetimes. The Internet is the most dramatic technological development of our lifetimes. How has one responded to the other?

There are three answers to this question.

In the hours between the shift in the tectonic plates and the slamming of the tsunamis into coastal communities in 11 countries, there was a total failure to use the technology at our command. In the days and weeks following the catastrophe, the Net provided an extraordinary means of communicating the true scale of the horror and of mobilising unprecedented funding and resources to the stricken communities. In the months and years ahead, we will have to see whether the Net can be used to maintain a focus on what is happening and what is needed.

The tsunamis took several hours to reach most of the shorelines where they caused the damage, yet no one was warned that the waves were coming. Two days after the event, I wrote on my weblog [click here]: "I understand that a sensory system as sophisticated as the one operating in the Pacific Ocean is expensive, but why were there not phone calls and e-mails to the local and national officials of the countries about to be hit and why were radio and television warnings not issued?"

I am still amazed and angered that the relevant authorities did not use all the means of modern communications, including the Net, to warn the threatened communities.

In the first few hours and days after the tsunamis hit, the traditional media could not keep up with the pace of developments as the death toll rose hourly and the true nature of the havoc became more apparent. Only news web sites like the BBC could begin to track what was happening [click here].

In days, bloggers explained to web users how the Richter scale is constructed [click here] and how a tsunami is created [click here]. Then people who had witnessed the events posted dramatic photographs and video clips of the waves coming inland and the destruction that was caused. In the most remote or damaged regions, Net access was not possible, but observers used mobile phones and SMS messages to send information to friends who then put the news on web sites or weblogs.

The newly created South-East Asia Earthquake and Tsunami Blog quickly became an enormous source of information and news, with sections to post offers of help and requests for help in each of the affected countries [click here]. The Wikipedia site immediately set up a special section to provide detailed information on all aspects of the tsunamis and their aftermath [click here].

In a matter of days, hundreds of others created dedicated spaces on the web. For instance, LabourStart - which reports trade union news around the world - opened a special section to report trade union responses to the disaster [click here].

As the scale of the disaster became clearer, people everywhere wanted to help in some way and the most obvious was to donate money. The British public responded with unparalleled generosity as they contributed to the Disaster Emergency Committee [click here] and other charities, a process made easier by the opportunity to donate on-line. At its peak, the DEC was taking around £1 million an hour, helped considerably by its web site.

All this led the "Guardian" in a leader to refer to the Internet as "an angel of deliverance" [click here].

Then, a couple of days later, there came the news that a hoaxer in Lincolnshire had been charged with e-mailing the relatives of British people lost in the tsunamis to announce that they were dead [click here]. Also, around the world, there were a number of Internet scams seeking to exploit people's willingness to contribute money to the tsunami victims [click here].

What of the future? We know, from sad experience, that the traditional media will soon move its attention and coverage away from south-east Asia to the latest media 'hot spot'. It will be left to web sites and weblogs to maintain the attention on and the pressure for reconstruction efforts that will take years to restore lives, communities and economies.

In short: the events of the last few weeks have underlined that the Net is now so much a part of our lives that its use, abuse and non-use will be a feature of every human activity and event.

Links:
British Foreign & Commonwealth Office click here
British Department for International Development click here
United Nations Reliefweb click here
Telecoms Sans Frontieres click here
Blogs from Thailand click here
Blogs from Malaysia click here


Something momentous is happening to television. Our Internet columnist Roger Darlington warns that it's coming soon to an aerial near you.

THE BIG SWITCHOVER

Since its launch in Britain in 1998, digital television has grown faster than almost any other electronic household good or service and currently some 56% of households obtain digital TV through satellite, cable or terrestrial means.

There are real benefits from going digital: better signal quality, much broader range of programming, new interactive features, and - possibly - a different way of accessing the Internet from buying an expensive PC.

However, not everyone lives in a part of the country that is cabled, not everyone wants to subscribe to satellite, and Freeview - the digital terrestrial service backed by the BBC - can only be received by 73% of homes for technical reasons.

The only way to make digital terrestrial available to virtually all homes in the country is to boost the signal; this can only be done if more spectrum is made available; and more spectrum can only be released by switch off of the existing analogue signal.

Once analogue is switched off, not only does digital TV become accessible to all, but also the new spectrum that becomes available could generate significant income for the Treasury and stimulate the development of new communications services.

So, in September 1999, the Government announced that, at some point, the whole country will go digital in a process characterised - depending on your point of view - as switch off (of analogue), switch on (of digital) or (more neutrally) switchover.

In fact, it will not happen all at once. For complex technical reasons, the process will be carried out television region by television region.

The likely order (but not the timing) has already been announced. The indicative switchover order – subject to final Government decision - is follows:

It will be a massive and immensely complicated operation. We currently have 1,154 transmitters in a variety of locations - all of which will need to be converted.

There are about 25 million television households which contain around 75 million television sets - set-top boxes will need to be installed, some aerials will need to be adjusted, and viewers will need to master a new type of remote control and an electronic program guide (EPG).

Not everyone wants to go digital - they are content with their existing range of programmes and do not want the expense and trouble of switching just to access (as they would see it) a lot more of the same stale material.

Then there are particular groups who will be especially vulnerable in this exercise and the Ofcom Consumer Panel - of which I am a member - has produced a special report for the Secretary of state Tessa Jowell on how best to support these most vulnerable consumers. Our proposals would cost between £250M-£400M.

But the so-called 'refuseniks' and the vulnerable are not going to have a choice. Switchover is going to happen and the Government will have to sell the case and massage the political sensitivities.

In a practical sense, the whole exercise will be managed by a cross-industry group called SwitchCo, headed by broadcaster Barry Cox.

Berlin has already gone digital, but it is only a city, not an entire country. Some countries - like Italy and Spain - have already announced a deadline for conversion, but in reality they are far behind the UK. We are likely to be the first country to make the switchover.

So, when will it happen? The Government has not yet decided but, once the date is determined, it will take around two years to plan and another four years to execute. A good guess is that the first regions will convert in 2008 and the whole process will be complete by 2012.

A lot of organisations - notably electronics manufacturers - are pushing the Government to announce a firm timetable for switchover. They point out that currently consumers are still buying analogue televisions at twice the rate they are purchasing the set-top boxes to make them digital.

This will not change much until consumers believe that switchover will actually take place and know when it will occur. At that point, a massive public awareness programme will need to be launched. But all this will not happen until we get the General Election out of the way.

Links:
DTI/DCMS web site on Digital Television Project click here
"Driving Digital Switchover" - a report from Ofcom to the Secretary of State (April 2004) click here
"Persuasion Or Complusion? Consumers And Analogue Switchoff" - a report from the Consumer Expert Group to the Broadcasting Minister (October 2004) click here
"DTI/DCMS Cost/Benefit Analysis Of Digital Switchover" (February 2005) click here


As the nation awaits a general election, our Internet correspondent Roger Darlington looks at the new electronic relationship between government and citizen.

E-GOVERNMENT RULES, OK?

A quiet revolution is taking place in government departments and council offices around the country: one service after another is going on-line. It has taken five years and several billion pounds, but the intention is that by the end of the year all national and local government services will be available electronically.

In practice, 96% of central government services and 98% of the services offered by our 468 councils should meet the target. The aim is to improve services and save costs.

One example of service improvement comes from East Riding council in Yorkshire [click here] which has cut the time taken to process assessments for home care from 24 days to one day. An indication of the financial benefits that might be expected is found in the London borough of Westminster [click here] which expects net savings of £2.86 million in 2007/08.

The first local authority to claim to have all its services e-enabled was the borough of Tameside in Greater Manchester [click here] which hit the target two years ago. Another pioneer was Bracknell Forest in Berkshire [click here] whose leader attended a recent ntl-sponsored breakfast seminar on e-government that I co-chaired.

In preparation for this event, I checked out the web site of my own council which is the London Borough of Brent [click here]. I was impressed: it is available in four non-English languages, it is speech enabled, 100 forms are available on-line, 50 services can be accessed on-line, and there are links to 2,500 other useful sites.

However, e-government has the potential either to confuse or to simplify. On the one hand, the number of e-government sites is now enormous - about 4,000 in the UK. On the other hand, one of the other benefits of e-government is that it enables government to be more 'joined up'.

For instance, all the five councils in Dorset are taking down their individual web sites and they are all now using one county-wide site [click here]. London has 32 boroughs and many other bodies responsible for public services, but soon we can look forward to a portal from London Connects which pulls all these together.

Even more useful is a portal run by the Cabinet Office's E-government Unit which is designed to be a first port of call to all levels of government [click here].

Credit should be given to our government for driving this process. In the latest United Nations survey of e-government [click here], the UK was beaten only by the USA and Denmark in a league table of 143 countries' "e-government readiness".

A hint of where we might go comes from the experience of Fairfax County in Virginia, USA [click here]. This is reckoned to be the most e-enabled authority in the United States and it receives over a million visitors a month. It provides a brilliant range of services from on-line payment of local taxes to its own local television station. There are even sections for parents, teens and kids.

However, we are only at the start of putting government services on-line. The challenges for the future are developing new services and new ways of relating with citizens and enabling and encouraging citizens to make full use of these services and propose new ones. An ntl-sponsored survey has found low awareness of such services.

E-government is very difficult to promote with citizens because most people's interaction with government is infrequent. Therefore they need to be offered incentives: quicker service, cheaper service, new services, and relevant and up-to-date information and advice.

The ideal would be the kind of personalised service that Amazon offers to the site's established customers so that, following a registration process, citizens could be directed to those services or that information most relevant to their needs and circumstances.

Also currently the e-government agenda is all about delivery of services. In the future, it needs to encompass empowerment and participation, so that citizens have more interaction with their elected representatives, more involvement in local issues, and more control over local government.

Of course, all this is irrelevant if one does not have Internet access. Over 40% of UK homes still do not have even an narrowband connection and those citizens who would benefit most from e-government - especially poorer and older citizens - are precisely those groups least likely to be connected. So e-government makes the digital divide an even more relevant and urgent issue.


Increasingly you need help navigating yourself around the growing choice of TV channels, as our Internet columnist Roger Darlington explains.

THE HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO TELEVISION

Many readers will remember when you could count the number of available television channels on one hand. However, these days more than half of us have digital television - whether delivered terrestrially or by cable or satellite - so we have access to many hundreds of channels.

As Ronald Reagan might have put it: "You ain't seen nothing yet". The arrival of high-capacity Personal Video Recorders (PVRs) and Internet Protocol Television (IPTV) means that both off-line and on-line you will have access to an unbelievable volume and range of television and other video material.

How will you cope? Never fear. The electronic programme guide (EPG) is already here and it is set to become of increasing importance in how we access visual material.

Over half of homes in the UK already make use of an EPG because it comes with their access to digital television. Most users think that the EPG they know is the only one and have no idea of how it is likely to develop.

The most familiar EPG is that supplied by Sky [click here] to its satellite television subscribers, but cable operators Telewest [click here] and ntl [click here] have their own EPGs, the video on demand (VoD) company HomeChoice [click here] has its own, and there are already several others on the market especially for those using digital terrestrial set-top boxes (such as those made by Thomson and NetGem [click here]).

In the cut-throat competitive world of television, all channels want to be displayed on all guides and they want to be in a position and prominence that encourages viewer access to their programming. Ofcom regulates the way in which channels are displayed on all these broadcast EPGs, but it does not have the power to regulate on-line guides (such as DigiGuide [click here]).

In practice, all the guides place the five public service broadcasting channels - BBC1, ITV 1, Channel 4, Five and S4C - in the first five slots. Usually other channels are organised thematically, so that for instance all the film, sports or music channels tend to be together, but this arrangement does not necessarily suit all viewers.

The functionality of EPGs and the range of programme information to which they provide access will both increase. Indeed, instead of information simply on the current and next programme, many EPGs already offer schedules for the next week or fortnight.

Instead of simply a sentence or two describing content, you will have an indication of the frequency and nature of strong language, violence or sexual imagery to assist your control of the viewing of your children. This process will be assisted by the increasing use of meta tags on programmes, so that parents can more easily block access by their children to programmes which they judge unsuitable.

Increasingly we will see a 'personalisation' of television access, so that viewers will modify their EPG to arrange the channels in the order they want (a bit like 'favourites' or bookmarks' in the Web world) and the PVR will learn the series we watch and the programme types we like and automatically record this material without us having to set each individual programme.

As the technologies develop, the EPG and the PVR will become increasingly useful to those with hearing and/or visual impairments.

So far, we have been talking about conventional television programmes accessed over a conventional television. However, digital terrestrial television (DTT) tuners are now being built into personal computers (PCs), turning the PC into both a television and a PVR.

When you can access programmes and video clips from around the world and record and store months of viewing, you will need to be able to search the Web and your hard drive for the material that you want to view at the time in the same way that you do now with sites on the Web and documents on your PC. The EPG will then be a searcher as well as a guide.

Of course, these technical developments will totally transform the world of broadcasting. So-called linear viewing and the notion of the 9 pm watershed will become almost irrelevant, as viewers can watch what they want when they want.

The strong regulation of broadcasting will collide brutally with the non-regulation of the Internet, as regulators and parents seek to enforce the taste and decency standards with which they are so familiar on television to the visual material streaming over the Net.

Links:
Ofcom consultation on the regulation of EPGs click here
Ofcom Code of Practice on EPGs click here
Blinkx TV video search click here


The Net provides the most accessible medium in the history of humankind for both consumers and creators. Our Internet columnist Roger Darlington explains the implications.

THE NEW WORLD OF SOCIAL MEDIA

Before Johannes Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1438, there were only about 30,000 books throughout the whole of Europe, nearly all Bibles or biblical commentary. By 1500, there were more than 9 million books on all sorts of topics.

Five centuries later, the world is undergoing a digital media revolution every bit - sorry about the pun - as profound. This is because we now have technologies and networks that allow us easily and cheaply to access vast volumes of information and, just as significantly, to create our own material for our own audiences.

This latter phenomenon has been dubbed 'social media'. This social media - as opposed to conventional media - is the use of digital technology and digital networks to enable consumers to create their own media content and experiences.

Before the advent of the Internet, it was not easy to publish a book or a pamphlet or even to have a letter published in a newspaper. Furthermore editors and publishers shaped the material and how it was presented.

In the realm of social media, the user becomes the contributor, the editor and the publisher combined. A member of the digerati called Doc Searls has put it this way: "Social media is an example of the demand-side supplying itself".

Examples of social media include:

This is just the start. Already it is possible for anyone with minimal resources to open a radio station on the Net (see, for instance, Radio LabourStart [click here)]. Soon one will be able to set up one's own web-based television channel (see, for example, Narrowstep [click here]).

Of course, as with any new social development, there are some problems. First, one of the benefits of conventional media is that the editing and publishing processes ensure a degree of reliability as to the information in the newspaper or book. On the Net anyone can publish anything, however spurious or unsubstantiated. So, when accessing the Net, we need to be media literate and use critical thinking skills.

Second, there are important privacy issues. Someone may be happy to debate politics at a dinner party, but they may not want their views subsequently reported to the world via a blog. A parent may be very proud of his new baby and regularly post news reports and photos, but that child may be less than thrilled in years to come to find intimate details of their life available to everyone. So we need to exercise discretion.

Third, there can be copyright issues. A lot of social media involves reworking other people's material - commenting on, quoting from, parodying or remixing text, pictures and sound. But maybe McDonalds does not want its yellow arch to be associated with Islamic fundamentalism. So be careful.

Fourth and most importantly, there is a real risk of harm - whether it is a false allegation against a teacher in respect of child abuse or a footballer for taking bribes, whether it is web site or newsgroups that targets staff who work in abortion clinics or research establishments experimenting with animals or that promotes anoxeria or even suicide. Especially now that broadcasting and the Internet are converging, we need a debate about what controls on Internet content are necessary or possible.

One thing is for sure: in this age social media, it is a whole new more open, more democratic, more confessional world that provides power but also confers responsibility.


So far the communications revolution has been provided over networks that were essentially designed for plain old telephone service - but that is set to change big time, as our Internet columnist Roger Darlington explains.

NEXT GENERATION NETWORKS

For more than a century, the public switched telephone network (PSTN) has used circuit switching. The alternative is packet switching and traditionally this has been used for private data networks connecting computers and for the public Internet. In the late 1990s, worldwide the volume of data traffic overtook that of voice and increasingly carriers are now looking to integrate all their services onto what are called next generation networks.

There is no agreed definition of next generation networks but, at the heart of the concept, there is the integration of existing separate voice and data networks into a much simpler and more flexible network using packing switching and IP protocols. This will enable voice, text and visual messages to be carried on the same network and for each type of message to be responded to in any of these formats on that network.

This is sometimes characterised as a move from the existing model of a smart network and dumb terminals to a new model of a dumb network and smart terminals. In fact, the NGN will be far from dumb, but it is true that, compared to the existing PSTN, there will be much more intelligence in terminals.

BT calls its next generation network the 21st Century Network (21CN) [click here] and, in terms of scale and speed, it is a world leader in the roll-out of such a new network. It will integrate onto one network what are currently 16 separate network platforms each supporting different services. As well as substantially reducing operating costs and improving quality of service, BT's 21CN will allow future products and services to be built much quicker and - since open standards are involved - by new as well as traditional players.

Announced in summer 2004, the 21CN project is envisaged as a five-year programme. Mass migration of customers onto the new network will start in 2006, with the majority of customers expected to be on the network in 2008.

If Britain is a world leader in developing a new network at the core, it is lagging seriously in developments in the local loop known as next generation access.

Through a variety of digital subscriber line (DSL) technologies - notably ADSL [click here] - we are squeezing more and more capacity out of those 34 million traditional copper pairs. BT's standard broadband speed is now rising to 2 mega bits a second (Mbps), while companies like UKOnline and Bulldog are offering 8 Mbps. ADSL2+ [click here] offers the prospect of 24 Mbps.

However, in other countries, they are deploying optical fibre in the local loop and supplying broadband speeds that make the UK offerings look pedestrian. Different countries are using different options, such as fibre to the curb (FTTC), fibre to the building (FTTB), and fibre to the home (FTTH) [click here].

For instance, in Japan at the end of 2003, new FTTH connections passed any other type of new connection and over 3M customers now have a 24 Mbps service. South Korea makes substantial use of FTTB and is aiming to supply 100 Mbps to 5M customers by 2007.

Even Italy, in the form of FastWeb (a venture between the Milan gas & electricity company and a group of private investors) [click here], has approaching 200,000 fibre customers. The British communications regulator Ofcom is currently considering the regulatory options for next generation access, but meanwhile there is minimal investment in fibre and our industrial competitors are racing ahead.

The other technology which will increasingly transform local access to the Net and other services is radio.

Wi-Fi (Wireless Fidelity) [click here] provides wireless connectivity in an office or a home for computers (or other devices) within around 150-300 feet of a base station.

WiMax (World Inter-operability for Microwave Access) [click here] is a wireless metropolitan area network (MAN) technology with a bandwidth of around 75 mega bits a second across a distance of about 30 miles.

Altogether these new networks and new technologies will ensure than, in a matter of years, you will be able to access the Net and other services from virtually anywhere at speeds that will make your scalp tingle.


When you connect to the Net, you invite a weird array of cyber-strangers into your virtual home. Our Internet columnist Roger Darlington looks at what can be done.

THE BARBARIANS ARE AT THE GATE

Too many people think that the personal computer is a 'plug and play' device like a radio or television or game station. It is not. When the PC is connected to the Internet, it is open to possible access by anyone of the one billion Net users worldwide and some of them are evil characters.

The threats include spam, scams, viruses, worms, phishing, identity fraud, distributed denial of services attacks, botnets or zombie PCs, and a range of spyware. These threats are sometimes collectively called malware which is short for malicious software.

One of the first Internet columns I wrote for Connect was on the problem of spam [click here]. Then (April 2003), it was estimated that spam accounted for almost 10% of all e-mail in the UK.

About two-thirds of all e-mail is now spam. In the UK, it accounted for 12.4 billion items last year. At a conference, I attended recently, Richard Cox, Chief Information Officer at Spamhaus [click here], declared: "We are at war".

Now that the United States has taken more action, the UK is seen as a good location by spammers. Our legislation and its enforcement are regarded as weak.

For consumers, spam is exceedingly annoying and a major source of scams. Many consumers still know little about what to do about spam. They tend to be either paranoid or complacent about the security of their PC.

For industry, spam is not simply a productivity issue, but more seriously a security issue. Spam is the vehicle for all sorts of malware including viruses and Trojans.

One line of attack is legislation. Some tightening of the Computer Misuse Act is necessary and penalties need to be heavier, but generally legislation takes too long to enact, it is always behind developments, and penalties are low compared to the benefits to the spammer.

Another, more useful, approach is user education and awareness.

The Internet Watch Foundation - which I chair - has a useful FAQ section for general user issues.

The site ITsafe [click here] aims to provide both home users and small businesses with advice in plain English on protecting computers, mobile phones and other devices from malicious attack. Soon now, a range of partners will launch an ambitious campaign called Get Safe Online [click here].

By setting up an information-rich web site and resources, Get Safe Online aims to become the UK's recognised source on online security and protection. This will be backed up by a high profile awareness campaign to communicate the Get Safe Online message to the citizens of the UK.

However, if legislation is a blunt tool and consumers are struggling to understand what needs to be done, ultimately the most effective line of attack is technical.

At the conference I attended, Mark Sunner, Chief Technology Officer at MessageLabs [click here], argued that the further back in the system one deals with spam the better because the volumes are greater and detection is easier, so that ISPs could use the sort of blocking mechanisms that many companies use.

One approach might be the development of the network computer, so that all the blocking can be done and the protection provided by the network operator as is the case in the corporate sector.

More fundamentally, the massive vulnerabilities of Microsoft software, deployed by the overwhelming majority of PC users, must be addressed and corrected by the company, or there will be a shift to the open source operating system Linux and open source browsers like Mozilla Firefox (which I use).

The architecture of the Internet itself needs to be considered by bodies like the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) [click here]. The Net was simply not designed for its present uses and it is altogether just too vulnerable to attack and even to failure.

If we do not collectively solve the problem of malware, two things will happen.

Those who are already on the Net - especially corporates - will increasingly find ways to avoid the public Internet by using private networks, virtual networks, or networks overlaying the general Net. This will be expensive and inconvenient.

Those who are not yet on the Net will be frightened to do so. Remember that 30% of Americans and 40% of Britons are still not connected at home.


Thought that the digital divide was dissolving? Think again, urges our Internet columnist Roger Darlington.

THE DEEPENING OF THE DIGITAL DIVIDE

In truth, there are many digital divides – between those who have no Internet connection at all, those with dial-up narrowband, those with always-on broadband, those with faster than ‘basic’ broadband (512 kbps), those with the confidence to conduct targeted searches and economic transactions, those with the interest and ability to create content such as web sites or weblogs.

Of course, the most important divide at this stage is between those with home access to the Internet and those without. This is an issue that has slipped down the political agenda because politicians have tended to concentrate on broadband access rather than overall take-up.

Most of the movement in the market is narrowband users up-grading to broadband and broadband users up-grading to faster speeds. The overall number of Net-connected homes in the UK is only edging up slowly and is still only around 60-65%.

This means that very roughly we have a situation in which a third of homes have narrowband, a third have broadband, and a third have ‘noband’.

Why does this matter?

First, because to gain easy access to all local and national government services, to be able to use vast, worldwide sources of information, and to benefit from cheaper goods and services, one has to be on-line. In the information society, it is simply not possible to be an empowered consumer or citizen without having access to the Net.

Second, because the sections of the community that are least likely to be connected – the older and the poorer – are precisely those people who use government services most and need access to cheaper products and services. To leave a third of homes off-line is to increase social isolation and poverty and to diminish our society.

It is partly an issue of cost and complexity. Prices of computers are now falling, but PCs still need to be cheaper and simpler.

It is partly an issue of confidence. People need more support in combating threats like spam and scams and so an initiative like ‘Get Safe Online’ is really welcome.

Above all, though, it is an issue of support. BT, in partnership with others, is developing ideas such as Internet Rangers [click here], the Circuit Rider model and the Everybody Online project [click here].

In fact, there are many, successful but small-scale training schemes by organisations like Citizens Online [click here] and SustainIT [click here], but they need financial and logistical backing if we are to achieve scaleability.

In my view, all this too will not be enough. Many new Net users need practical and sustained help – in their own homes not just in training centres – to set up the PC, connect to the Net, and learn how to surf, search and shop.

A year and a half ago, I highlighted the problem of the digital divide to Connect members in my June 2004 column that was titled: “Has Net growth stalled?” [click here]. In that column, I proposed something I called NetAid.

This would be a locally-driven, volunteer-based initiative to pair up young, Net-savvy enthusiasts with those – especially older and poorer citizens – who want to connect to the Net for the first time.

Local schools and colleges plus church, business and community groups could link with organisations with real experience of volunteering on the ground to match those who are familiar with and enthusiastic about the technology with those who know nothing but want to learn.

Assistance would be provided in the home both in the initial set-up process and in regular follow-up sessions as problems were addressed and confidence was created. Once the new user was sufficiently proficient, further support could be on-line or over the phone.

Although NetAid would be very much a local affair, it would benefit from some national branding and promotion with a web site and off-line resources like leaflets in local libraries and citizens’ advice bureaux and public funding for trials and pump-priming would be very helpful.

Since I first floated this idea, I have spoken to volunteer organisations like Community Service Volunteers [click here] and Timebank [click here] as well as Help The Aged [click here] and I am hopeful that something will eventually get off the ground.

It cannot come too soon – but it could start to break down the basic digital divide in a cheap and cheerful way and give us valuable experience for the similar exercise of digital switchover from 2008-2012.

Link:
Alliance For Digital Inclusion click here


Back to home page click here