Digital Participation

Willie Coffey MSP reconvened the Scottish Parliament’s Cross Party Group on Digital Participation on last evening. The growing interest in this area of work is reflected in the wide number of attendees from an increasing number of interests – everyone from Quarriers who are running ICT programmes with learning disabled and physically disabled adults to BT and Highlands and Islands Enterprise.

The first presentation came from Sheena Watson of Digital Fife. She started by describing Fife’s demographics as ‘Scotland in miniature’ and the statistics reveal a deeply troubling picture with 30% of those on Job Seekers’ Allowance under the age of 25, a doubling of serious financial arrears in debt/rent and 5% of the population in deep financial difficulties. Around one in 5 are living in fuel poverty. In that context, all the government targets of getting online and signing up to broadband seem a huge challenge.

Digital Fife was established with funding from Big Lottery and develops local digital champions to work with community groups, supporting projects, building websites and developing other digital champions. They use net books and dongles for maximum flexibility with connectivity and work through the Learning Partnership, including libraries, to develop digital skills. The web content also includes online learning and some 1250 learners are registered. The modules are aimed at those running community groups and include courses on fundraising, organising meetings, basic computer courses and using the internet. When Martha Lane Fox, the UK Digital Champion, visited Templehall Library in January 2011, she met some of the digital champions and heard about the initiative. Projects have also been developed, aimed at helping those with mental health issues back to work. This includes a touchscreen project which can be bluetoothed from screen to smartphone or portable device for later study in private. There’s potential to make this accessible from a film screening added to windows which could, for example be added to mobile libraries or community buildings – offering 24/7 access.

This was followed by Stuart Robertson of Highlands and Islands Enterprise who spoke about Digital Highlands and Islands and Broadband Delivery UK (BDUK). Highlands and Islands are one of 4 recipients of BDUK funding (Cumbria, Herefordshire and North Yorkshire) and are seeking to improve broadband provision from an economic development perspective. This is not to be confused with the Highlands broadband pathfinder which is aggregating public sector demand for broadband. The European targets are 30MB by 2020 and H&I have £10m of the £68.8m allocated to Scotland by BDUK and estimates are that at least £300m is required for all H&I coverage.

The final report came from Vicki Nash of Ofcom and looked at the latest Ofcom Communications Market Report. This did not make particularly easy reading either. Scotland is the least connected nation in the UK, having been second to England a mere 6 years ago, Scotland has slumped to the bottom with a complete flatline for the last 2 years. Broadband take-up is particularly low in Greater Glasgow (50%), amongst those aged 55+ (34%), by DE social groups (30%), and in households with incomes less than 17.5k per annum (26%). There’s more on this on Slainte news in August. The statistics are quite stark, if you’re older and poorer you are less likely to be connected and, therefore, less likely to be able to take part in the economic benefits available. That said, there was a growth in uptake of ‘bundles’(telephone/broadband/television) and we can only conclude that the Scots like a bargain! A fifth (21 per cent) of adults with a mobile phone in Scotland now own a smartphone, below the UK average of 30 per cent. Scotland had the lowest proportion of homes connected to a fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC) enabled exchange in March 2011 at just 7per cent where-as the Northern Ireland Assembly Government has made a big commitment to FTTC. As part of Ofcom’s consumer advisory role under the Digital Economy Act, Ofcom has developed interactive maps. I see South Lanarkshire has an average connection speed of 7.7Mbit/s (not in my house, I hasten to add) and 65% sign up to broadband, but even this compares poorly to a UK average of 74%.

This is in the context of Job Centre Plus targets of moving 80% of transactions online and a UK total of 9.2million people who aren’t online. Libraries and other partners are working hard to provide the access and the support for skills development required but it is going to be a long, hard job to get people connected and digitally active in a recession.

Rhona Arthur, Assistant Director

Digital Fife added
The Digital Fife team also included Fife’s head of ICT who was involved in setting their digital inclusion strategy and was interested in ways to use council investment in IT to support Fifers.
I also wanted to highlight that one of the short online learning modules provided is Accessing government. Anyone can register and do the module -even outside the Kingdom.

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