Martha Lane Fox: Looking for an inclusive future

Every single industry and every single activity is being disrupted by technology. Forty  per cent of all news consumed is now  online and a data tsunami is upon us. There were 31 billion searches on Google in the UK alone in 2010 compared to 2.7 billion searches on all of the search tools on the web in 2006.

The UK is a digital success story. We have the highest percentage of sales coming from e-commerce transactions in the world.  Fifty percent of all travel is now booked online in the UK. Eight million of us found jobs online last year.  Seven million of us have bought or sold something on e-bay.

The internet is worth about £100 billion to the UK alone and last year the UK government took some very bold steps too by opening up government data and putting it out online – data that people can make good use of. One developer, for example,  has used information on the air quality in London to help people who struggle with asthma and other respiratory diseases find out which bits of London are safest to breathe in.

In 2007 62 per cent of us in the UK were able to use the internet now it’s a staggering 82.5 per cent.  We lead the world with the percentage of internet users with broadband connections. But – and it’s a big “but” for me – there are nine million people in this country who have never used the internet.  This nine million breaks down into some interesting statistics and shows, I believe, that we are creating not just a digital divide, but also a very deep social one.  Four million of the overall nine million total fall into three or more of the multiple deprivation indices. 39 per cent are over 65 years old, 38 per cent are unemployed, and 19 per cent are families with children.  No surprises that these same four million are the heaviest users of both central and local government services.

There’s a big north-south gap as well.  The biggest areas of digital exclusion are also the most economically disadvantaged – parts of the northeast of England, Liverpool, Glasgow and the coast of Scotland.  Seventy percent of people who live in social housing have never been online. It’s a very deep social exclusion issue and an important moral imperative that we make sure no one gets left behind.

There are both individual and UK plc benefits.  For the individual, it’s now an absolute fact that your chances of getting a job and what you will earn in that job, all increase if you are online.  If you are unemployed you are 25 per cent more likely to get employment if you have web skills.  If you are online your feelings of loneliness go down by 80 per cent, and your feelings of confidence increase by 60 per cent – you are much more likely to get involved in your local community.

But it’s not just the individual that benefits.  I believe we all benefit when more people are online.  There are the numbers to back this up.  A survey by Google showed that if a country increases its broadband penetration by ten percent, it tends to get a one per cent kick on its GDP too – which is quite significant.

Local councillors can play a vital role in ensuring all citizens gain digital skills, which are now as basic as reading, by providing leadership in thinking about the internet as a key part of its delivery of public services. We now live in an age that we all need to think ‘Internet First’.

Councillor Joe Anderson, the leader of Liverpool City Council, demonstrates the crucial role that local political leadership will play in achieving a networked nation.  Liverpool has joined Race Online 2012 as a partner and is implementing a city wide digital inclusion strategy which aims to significantly increase the number of residents connected to the broadband from 40 per cent to 70 per cent.  Councillor Jane Corbett, Cabinet Member for Education and Children’s Services, who has been appointed the Liverpool Digital Champion sums up the need for action “it’s absolutely vital that we close the massive digital divide that exists in the City – it’s unjust and unfair”.

Please join the Race Online 2012 campaign by signing up at www.raceonline2012.org and help us close the digital divide once and for all.

This article was first published in C’llr Mag.