Welfare, Independence and Diversity: the faces of digital inclusion - plenary at the EU Conference on Innovation for Digital Inclusion

The first plenary session of the EU Conference on Innovation for Digital Inclusion at Gdansk, Poland was introduced by Marcin ZAKROCKI, a journalist working for the Polish Television, who challenged the speakers to explain him the correlation with the actual financial crisis and its origins in the most "digitally included" country: the US. He also seems to have noticed that the crisis is attacking very severely in countries like Spain - where broadband access recently has been declared a civil right!

Graham WALKER from Race Online 2012 in the UK and Iosif MOLDOVAN from the Ministry of Communication and Information Society in Romania both replied with each a presentation on their government's activities for digital inclusion, and Gregg VANDERHEIDEN, PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison replied with a presentation on how technologies should adapt to include the digitally excluded.

For Graham WALKER the correlation between social exclusion and digital exclusion is very true in the UK: 41 million people are connected to the internet, but 8,5 million have NEVER used it and about 4 million are socially-economically excluded in the UK. But should access to ICT to be considered a human right? A heated discussion is going on here - because what about the inequalities in income, in education? So: how can we argument that a 22 billion pounds campaign to get 8 billion people online has benefits from an economic, employment and educational perspective?

  • A strong argument are the 7 million jobs that were only advertised online last year in the UK. This means that only the digitally included find those jobs and thus earn 3-4% more than the digitally excluded: to get those people online would save a billion pounds a year.
  • Another argument is that the heavy users of public services are the old and the poor – the very same group that is most likely to be digitally excluded. So great savings for social costs can be achieved through more policy oriented towards the financing of ICT development and eGovernment.
  • Another important argument is the competitiveness that can be derived from digital literacy and IT skills.
  • The last argument is of course social justice but this doesn't seem to be the main drive of UK's Digital Agenda.

So what activities are we doing in the UK to get people online?

  • Martha Lane Fox was appointed as Britain's "Digital Champion" and has successfully raised awareness to get everybody online. She is a big media personality, but the "champion model" with a 20 million pound promotion budget really worked in the UK, as Marta was successful in an ambition that no british politician could achieve: she really can get people online and united for common purposes.
  • Public services in the UK are now online by default, and are internet based services. We have two billions contacts a year with the general public and if this can become a 30% of virtual contacts, we could save two billions a year. Efficiency and eInclusion working together is the best argument in economic bad times.
  • We have a national campaign with 12 partners to raise awareness and get 2 million new people online. It is built upon what already exists: public libraries, health centres, NGO's, public internet access points,... all the infrastructure already available. To boost the potential of eInclusion in these places we have a "Go ON" toolkit - a motivation campaign through badges that market the benefits of going online: "Go ON and find a job online", "Go On and watch last night's television program online", etc.
  • We don't have just one national digital champion like Martha Lane, we have hundred of thousands of digital champions, so we stimulate eVolunteering and give support to the 70% included to train other persons, because we know people learn better from people like themselves. We do this through telecentres like UK online centres, through libraries, or more informal: individuals that are helping their grandmother etc.
  • We are organizing the Go ON, Give an Hour volunteering campaign at the end of october. As at that time we will switch to winter hour in the UK, we ask our digital champions to give that hour to teach people to get online.

The question though remains in how to sustain all this in the future? Without doubt we need a mixture of partnerships, more digital champion volunteers, government funding, and maybe a charity trust fund with partners like the BBC and others who put in resources and join the action.


For Gregg VANDERHEIDEN, the digital gap should be solved into the other direction: we don't need to "fix" the people at the "low end" of society so that they're able to use all the technological interfaces our engineers are designing at the "high end" of society - we need to "fix" the interfaces and build far less complex interfaces!

According to Gregg, the actual financial crisis is just a beginning - we have a new crisis coming! A technology crisis with a "two-island" society: the technology island of the included and the non-technology island of the excluded.

Digital technology is getting into every aspect of our live: in education, information, communication, but also into daily activities like entertainment, cleaning, cooking, etc. (cfr complex washing machines, televisions, ovens, etc.) - if those at the high end with high education already have difficulties using all these machines, what about those below? There will be nothing left at the non-technology island as all spheres of society (schools, jobs, political life,...) are moving to the technology island. Simply because using technology is faster, more convenient and more productive. So we need to make things more simple, without slowing down our race with technology.

We are leaving behind those that can’t read, those who can’t understand complex interfaces, those who can’t learn new things (the deterioration of short term memory is very present with elderly people), so we need to move away from the idea that "everybody is like us" as many engineers seem to think.

What we need is more “assistive technologies”, as today they are only geared towards people with disabilities, and most of them don't work on the diversity of platforms we have today (mac, android, google chrome, html5, etc.). This means that if a person can’t read very well, we must make interfaces on which text can be read to them or can help them to learn to read better. If a person can’t see very well, we must make interfaces that make the buttons grow. If a person can't handle complexity: we must make interfaces that look like their own world. It also means that we need to create tools for not so smart blind people too, so interfaces that adjust to the user and not keep asking the user to adjust to the interfaces.

Gregg illustrates how overwhelming it can be for a grandma to learn to use email for the first time, as the current interfaces are based upon built-in concepts & vocabulary (a mouse? a window? scroll down? drag? a page that goes down? an arrow?), that do not belong to the daily world of the elderly. An adjusted interface would for example have only a few icons that look very much like a paper letter, a physical mailbox and the postman's delivery truck. There would be no instruction screens, as the elderly's short term memory simply makes them unable to remember those instructions.

So the conclusion is that we’re not making progress on digital literacy fast enough and we have to make the effort, it’s not about being "nice", simply we cannot leave behind this whole part of society. But we cannot keep on funding all of this, we have to engage the national market forces: not by changing the paradigm but by reversing the trends. What the internet did to information, we need assistive technologies to do to the current interfaces!


Getting back to the more "traditional" ways of solving digital exclusion, Iosif MOLDOVAN explains the outcomes of the Romanian Knowledge Based Economy project regarding eInclusion:

  • The first barrier to overcome was the lack of access to ICT, especially in knowledge disadvantaged communities and in remote areas. Twenty million USD was invested in ICT infrastructure & broadband internet and the project also financed the establishment of 255 Local Communities e-Networks (LCeNs) and public Internet Access Point.
  • Another barrier was the human capacity, so a critical mass of more than 5000 citizens were trained in ICT, more than 3800 teachers from 229 schools were trained in innovative use of ICT, 60 accreditations as ICT Professional Training Centers were given to 60 LCeN centers and through 40 exchange experiences and 7 international study trips, knowledge sharing and transferability is being secured.
  • There are though still barriers to overcome for increasing awareness related to the opportunities offered by Information Society, as the rejection and motivation to use the tools is still very high in Romania, although there is a big demand from different communities to extend convenient online content and electronic public services: getting a driver's licence for example still takes about a week time. 
"What's the cost of all this?" is a question often being raised by journalists. More important though is the question of what the cost for Romania would be if we don’t implement all of this when 25% of the GDP growth and 40% of productivity growth in the EU is generated by a consistent use of information and communication technologies.

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