Lack of skills and access to hardware are stopping people in the lowest income bracket going online. James Rogers looks at the government's current £1m Get Started campaign to help the information "have-nots" join the internet society.
Rolling out the gimmicks - laptop give-aways, mentions in TV soap storylines and ministerial antics in photo opportunities - are what the government thinks will grab Joe Public's attention and help to bridge the digital divide. Its six-week Get Started campaign, which comes to a close at the end of this month, was kicked off by trade and industry minister Patricia Hewitt clicking on a giant mouse at a UK Online centre in East London.
Get Started is funded to the tune of £1m by the government and is the UK's most ambitious attempt yet. It aims to bring the internet to a new audience. By offering free sessions to introduce members of the public to the internet at 6,000 UK Online centres and through a range of partner projects with industry and the voluntary sector, the government is attempting to break down the lack of skills and access to hardware obstacles that millions of UK citizens face in getting online.
But just how big is the UK's digital divide, and how much work will be needed to bridge it?
Paul Miller, researcher at think-tank Demos, says, "You have to look beyond the official statistics. The digital divide is about how the internet is embedded into the economy and our social lives." And this country has a long way to go on both counts, he adds.
It would certainly seem that the UK has become a society of information "haves" and "have-nots". Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that significant sections of the adult population, particularly groups such as the disabled and the long-term unemployed, are still not online.
The official statistics also reveal that, while 52% of the adult population can be counted as regular internet users, there has been little growth in internet access among the lowest income bracket, with just 10% online compared to 82% of high earners.
These figures have implications for the success of a variety of online projects from the public sector, retailers and charities. For example, earlier this year Whitehall's auditors the National Audit Office told the government it must boost the number of older people using e-government services for them to be commercially viable. Get Started could be the first stage in making great swathes of the UK population aware of the benefits of using the internet.
The good news is that people appear to be responding to this message. By the end of May, only two weeks into the campaign, 47,000 people had contacted the Office of the E-envoy and expressed their desire to get online. Although precise figures are unavailable at this stage, thousands more members of the public are believed to be working with the government's many campaign partners.
Wisely, the government has exploited the expertise of the voluntary sector to reach those sections of the community with the least access to the internet and technology. This includes ethnic minorities as well as single-parent families and the elderly.
John Fraser, head of partnerships and external relations at the Office of the E-envoy, says, "The voluntary sector knows its communities and can reach its respective members far better than we can."
Organisations such as Age Concern are key partners in rolling out the campaign. The charity's Silver Surfer Festival is part of Get Started. Run in partnership with Microsoft, Cable & Wireless and UK Online, the festival is designed to promote the benefits of the internet to older people and provide free access to training on using the internet.
According to Age Concern, the Silver Surfer project has been a success: 620 people attended 272 sessions around the UK in the first week alone.
A major benefit of the internet for older people is that it can put them in contact with people and places that are important to them. "One elderly man from Vancouver was overcome when he found a lot of information on his home town by using the internet," an Age Concern spokeswoman says.
Other groups targeted by the government's campaign include the disabled. Last month, for example, Cabinet minister Ian McCartney teamed up with Coronation Street actress Suranne Jones to welcome a web portal designed specifically for visually-impaired people. Launched in the second week of the Get Started initiative and media giant Granada's IT's for Life project, the new "A-sites" portal was developed by the National Library for the Blind.
The project aims to remove some of the barriers faced by visually-impaired people who want to get online. Many websites are not designed to work with adaptive technologies such as audio screen readers and Braille keyboards, leaving visually-impaired beginners frustrated and forcing many to give up using the internet. A-sites provides a one-stop shop of accessible sites so beginners can build up their confidence before exploring the web.
The fictitious town of Weatherfield has loomed large in the government's attempts to get people online. The men from the ministry even recruited the services of Coronation Street actress Samia Ghadie to help publicise the initiative. Better known to soap viewers as Maria Sutherland, Ghadie visited seven ITV regions at the start of the campaign as part of a team providing free computers.
The campaign even managed to work its way into the soap's storyline. Viewers saw Jones, who plays Karen McDonald, say that she is attending a UK Online centre to help her to manage the factory accounts. Getting soap opera stars involved in the campaign has been a shrewd move by the government. Officials have admitted that the target audience for Get Started is unlikely to be moved by the exhortations of chief executives of blue-chip companies to use the internet, but soap stars can depict the reality of getting online in a way that people can relate to.
The government has also been keen to get the IT industry and the people that work in it involved in the Get Started agenda. An impressive array of companies are official partners, including Packard Bell, Microsoft, Intel, Hewlett-Packard, BT and Cable & Wireless.
E-envoy Andrew Pinder has also been keen to get IT professionals involved in helping people access the internet. With this in mind, Angel Packs, which provide information on how people can join the Get Started campaign on a practical level such as volunteering to help a first-time internet user get online, can be downloaded.
But what happens on 30 June when the campaign ends? Officials predict that the good work already completed will not be lost. Fraser says, "We will be working with colleagues in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Department for Education and Skills and Learn Direct. We will be giving them the findings of our campaign to continue their activities."
Miller warns that skills will be a major issue in the future. "The Get Started campaign is another step along the road to getting people online but to conquer the digital divide we need people not only to be connected but also be capable of using the internet," he says.
There is also an onus on the government to provide the types of online services that people need. "The next step is the government getting its internet content right. It's not just about automating existing public services, it's about finding appropriate ways of using existing technology," Miller adds.
Certainly, the challenge ahead of the government is a massive one. It is estimated that 17 million adults in the UK have not used the internet in the last 12 months.
Officials admit that this is just the first step in the UK's efforts to share the internet revolution with technology have-nots. Fraser says, "You can't tackle the issue of skills before you tackle the issue of access. This is the first step."
Case study: free laptops help bridge the divide
As part of the Get Started campaign, laptops were handed out to individuals who had taken a lead in getting people online in each of the seven Granada regions across the UK.
Joyce Taylor, 62, was nominated by Age Concern to receive a Packard Bell laptop in acknowledgement of her work bridging the digital divide. Taylor first encountered the internet when she attended Age Concern's computer classes in Newcastle upon Tyne in September 2001 and by July 2002 had learnt enough to offer her services to the helpdesk volunteer team at the charity.
Taylor, who is currently recovering from a stroke she suffered at the end of last year, is delighted with her laptop, which she intends to use to help others get online.
She says, "The laptop has got all sorts of things on it - DVDs and a CD player - it is wonderful. I hope to take it to the stroke support group I am a member of and encourage people to use it."
An Age Concern spokeswoman says, "She has come from being a new user of the internet to having the confidence to inspire and teach others."
Case study: UK Online centre helps to teach new skills
UK Online centres are at the heart of the Get Started initiative. One site that has already made great efforts to bridge the digital divide is the Acorn Community Resource and Business Centre in Grimethorpe, South Yorkshire.
The centre, which offers a range of courses, is at the forefront of boosting skills in the close-knit, former mining community. Local resident Elizabeth Shaw started attending the centre following a bereavement last September and has since completed a series of IT and non-IT courses, including Learn Direct and the European computer driving licence. She says, "I came to the centre without any up-to-date IT skills and have learnt up to ECDL standard through the internet and Learn Direct courses.
"The community centre has boosted my confidence so much that I can help other people at the centre."
Such has been Shaw's success that she was named Learn Direct Learner of the Year and is now using her new-found skills in the jobs market. "I have boosted my knowledge and am now looking for jobs," she says.
Get Started's objectives
- To invite people to experience the benefits of going online through free introductory internet sessions at UK Online centres
- To highlight the benefits of using the internet
- To break down the barriers that prevent people getting online.