E-envoy drops in to boost low web use in Newcastle

The e-envoy visited the North East last week to push the region's low internet use. James Rogers reports.

The e-envoy visited the North East last week to push the region's low internet use. James Rogers reports

T ap-dancing pensioners and a photo shoot with former England football star Peter Beardsley are all in a day's work for e-envoy Andrew Pinder, judging by his visit to the North East last week.

An Age Concern centre may seem an unlikely place to find the man spearheading the UK's e-revolution, but a hall full of tap-dancing pensioners was just one of the stops on the e-envoy's hectic tour of Newcastle.

Despite recent speculation that his role is to be cut back as part of a Cabinet Office shake-up, Pinder is adamant that the Office of the E-Envoy will continue to co-ordinate the UK's drive to become the world's leading e-economy.

In addition to boosting the high-tech profile of UK plc, Pinder's role involves helping bridge the UK's digital divide, hence the visit to a part of the country where internet use is well below the national average.

Figures from the Office for National Statistics show that, between October 2001 and September 2002, 36% of households in the North East had internet access, compared with 41% in the North West and 50% in the South East.

The trip was timed to coincide with a month-long government initiative to boost public use of the internet in Newcastle, prior to the launch of a national campaign to breach the digital divide in May.

Pinder, who worked as a tax inspector in the city in the 1970s, said visiting local communities is his favourite aspect of the e-envoy's role. "I usually have to be dragged away from places on days like today," he said.

For this reason, the 55-year-old former Citibank executive found himself sharing centre stage with a local women's choir and former Newcastle United star Beardsley at West Walker Primary School in Newcastle.

The school, complete with hordes of children, the local mayor, and an array of camera crews, was hosting the latest stage of EverybodyOnline, a joint BT and government initiative to encourage people in disadvantaged areas to use the internet.

In his speech, Pinder highlighted the vital role of IT in the modern workplace. "In order to exist in the working environment you have to know about computers and getting online," he said.

In addition to West Walker School, Pinder visited a UK Online Centre in Byker and a cybercafe at Newcastle's Age Concern centre as part of a gruelling schedule which also took in meetings with key IT firms in the North East. This included a trip to the headquarters of accountancy software firm Sage and a tour of BT's broadband call centre in Longbenton.

Pinder was appointed e-envoy in 2000, and he believes that, overall, the UK has been making better use of the internet in the past couple of years.

"We have got many more people online than two years ago - we are doing well with e-business and there is a higher percentage of UK businesses trading online than their US counterparts," he said. "We have managed to raise the profile of online transactions and having an internet presence."

Pinder was set to follow his trip to Newcastle with a visit to Brazil, where he was scheduled to make the keynote speech at a Latin-American conference. But he admitted that he gets the greatest pleasure from visiting grass-roots IT projects.

"This is the best part of my job - meeting real people in a real community," he said.

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