The next meeting of Croydon Tech City takes place on Thursday (July 18 at Matthews Yard at 7.30pm). I will not be able to go, so here are my thoughts on the issues it should be considering in planning its 2013/14 programme.
Lack of Public Knowledge of Web based Croydon News and Information Services
Many people I have spoken to at my history stalls do not know about the web based Croydon Citizen (CC), Inside Croydon (IC) or Croydon Radio (CR). This means that the information and debates on them are not reaching everyone who is potentially interested. This is only in relation to people with access to the web. There are large numbers of people who do not have home or mobile access to the web and have to use their local library or internet café.
This poses a number of challenges for all those who want to interconnect Croydon residents via the internet. CC, IC and CR need to consider producing promotional leaflets, hopefully a joint one, and have a stall presence at community events. In relation to the ‘digital divide’ – those without access - this has been a challenge for Government and the regulator Oftel/Ofcom for nearly 15 years.
The 'Digital Divide’
A high percentage of the population do not use computers even at internet cafes. See the report on the ‘Digital Divide’ at www.21stcenturychallenges.org/focus/digital-divide-in-britain.
Early on the former Labour Government’s social inclusion agenda included the need to prevent the development of a digital divide as telephony, broadcasting and communications began to merge together. I was then Secretary of the Public Utilities Access Forum (PUAF) (now Essential Services Action Network). In 1999 PUAF posed the following questions to the telecoms regulator Oftel (now Ofcom):
· Is the Internet just another add on?
· Is there enough evidence to suggest that it is becoming fundamental as a means of information communication?
· Will people be denied access to jobs in the next century if universal Internet access is not provided?
· What are the benefits and disbenefits of the Internet?
· Is access through public places the parallel of public telephone boxes 50 years ago?
· If there is a strong economic benefit to the country for public access?
· Public access can be regarded as a substitute to access in the home.
· Schools and libraries are bridging points for access. Primary schools could be the basis for city based provision.
· In addition to the switch over to digital TV, what other technologies might come along that will enable Internet access?
Public Internet Access Points
In relation to the Government Policy Action Team report Closing The Digital Divide: information and communication technologies in deprived areas (2000), PUAF took the view:
· that the fact that truly universal access to basic telephony had not been achieved, home internet access is a pipe dream for those lacking basic telephony.
· that there was a need for support in both acquiring the necessary equipment and gaining competence and confidence in using it, if low‑income households are to benefit from home internet access.
· that there was likely to be a continuing need for public internet access points (PIAPs) to complement home internet access.
The Council of Europe thought that PIAPs would be a key answer to closing the digital divide. I assisted telecoms expert Claire Milne with her report on the issue for the Council. Chapter 4 is still on the web: www.antelope.org.uk/publications/COE_Internet_Access_Chapter_4.pdf.
In 2008 even the Tories thought that not enough action had been taken to minimise the ‘digital divide’. They issued a statement about the need to take action: www.computing.co.uk/ctg/news/1843568/tories-action-digital-divide
What has the ConDem Government done since? By eroding the incomes of those at the bottom of the pile it is only making the ‘digital divide’ worse.
What Can Be Done Locally About ‘The Digital Divide’?
It is an issue that can have solutions at local level. For example, when local authorities installed entry-phone systems it was possible to have provided phone and internet access at the same time, but this usually did not happen. Earlier this year Wandsworth Council announced it had signed a contract with a company to provide free, but time-limited wifi access, particularly for its estates, where the digital divide will be at its highest, using lamp posts.
What can Croydon Tech City do to increase awareness among digital businesses about the ‘digital divide’ and how they might be able to help come up with local solutions? Perhaps the Council should consider funding the ending of ‘digital divide’ projects using Community Infrastructure Levy monies paid by developers?
CTC and User Perspectives
There are other issues that Croydon Tech City could usefully discuss over the coming year, especially helping technical digital people to better understand user perspectives.
Users divide into many groups with different problems in using computers and using the internet. Talking to a wide range of users in recent years it is apparent that many website designers are their own worst enemies. They get so caught up with the fancy look of a site that they forget how it will be received by users. So the use of white text on background is enough it turn many users from trying to read it. Over small font size is difficult to read by older people because of deteriorating eyesight. Complex page design can get in the way of easy reading a site.
Then there is a group of users, including myself, for whom the introduction of computers and then the web revolutionised our lives. I could not produce the content of my EDiary and News, the Samuel Coleridge-Taylor Network newsletter and the British Black History Digest, without the ability to provide links to web sites.
I have found myself advising from a user perspective on the design and changes to about half a dozen websites. Over the last year I have been editing and uploading hundreds of files prepared volunteers in a history project onto a web based database.
My main website is considerably out of date because it depends on having a volunteer webmaster, and my last one had to stop up-dating because of an overload of clashing commitments.
Using Google/Government, etc free websites, I run and update a blog (http://historyandsocialaction.blogspot.com), https://sites.google.com/site/historysocialaction, and https://sites.google.com/site/samuelcoleridgetaylornetwork.
I am a member of the editorial group for the Independent Working Class Education Network website: http://iwceducation.co.uk.
But as a user I do not understand the technology. All I want is for it to be easy to use, and to work, and not lose connectivity when Microsoft downloads updates. The cost of computing is not cheap. Which brings us back to ‘the digital divide’.
How People Use Websites
Another issue is the assumption by individuals and organisations that people will visit their websites regularly. Most people I know do not unless they receive an email alert to let them know that something new has been posted. That is the one of Inside Croydon’s strong points and obviously underpins its high contact rate.
The above issues may be better dealt with in smaller CTC sessions say for about 12 people at a time. Each person would say who they were, their experience, and their interest, so that others understand the perspective people are bringing to the discussion of an issue, as well as getting to know each other better.
See also my previous thoughts posting on CTC at:
CTC's explanation of the 18 July meeting can be seen at:
I can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.