Sunday 11 July 2010

The responsibility of communicating

Lets talk about digital exclusion. Or conversely digital inclusion because the two are the opposite sides of what is, essentially, the same argument. It's merely a matter of tilting ones head to see either side of the fence and relatively easy to see which side someones sitting on the great digital divide.

The divide isn't only about infrastructure. Don't get me wrong, I acknowledge fully and completely that when someone arrives at a social media presentation with the gambit that a third of her Councils area doesn't even have mobile phone coverage, I am going to mentally calculate which century we are in and feel something very close to complete despair at the size of the challenge ahead of us if we want everyone to have the same digital opportunities. We have some challenges ahead which are going to require massive investment and some inspiring technical innovation to enable everyone to have the same platform to start from.

But this post is not about infrastructure. This post is about a sense that the government is rushing faster and faster towards a digital economy, digital communication streams and digital consultation without any comprehension of the exclusion they that are creating.

Think about the adverts that you see on TV. Think of how many quote web addresses or suggest you enter 'a phrase' into a 'search engine' for more information. Think of the government adverts which do the same. Think of all the competitions which you can enter for free online but have to pay for if you telephone or write. Think about communicating with government bodies. Applications for passports, driving licences etc, can all be done digitally. The alternative is entering into a two way conversation with a government body via post and we all know how that goes. Think of the segments on morning tv shows which quote web addresses for more information, where the information is not offered any other way. Think about the increasing habits of schools to publish timetables and events diaries on the web. Think about all the information and knowledge which is available on the web for free, which if you did not have access to the web, you would need to pay for, either by subscribing to journals or buying expensive books. Think of all the newspaper articles where comments come thick and fast and the media can form ideas on the mood and feel of the populace on the subject those comments are on.

Now think about not being able to do any of those things. Not because you can't, but because you simply don't want to. Or maybe that you can't afford to. That there is a nice pipe running past your door but you don't have the money to pay £28 a month for broadband because that's part of the food budget. Or perhaps that you have the money, but you just don't care enough to go through all the complications and learning at a later stage in your life. That your exposure to the web has only ever been through the TV and all you can see are configurations of words with dots in them and they mean nothing to you. Where your understanding only comes from what's said on screen and it seems that there is a mass of information out there but you can't access it, and you could access it, if you wanted to, but there just isn't the urge there once was to take on new ideas.

This post was inspired by a real person. She exists. There are hundreds of thousands just like her. She's the gran of my physiotherapist. She wants to receive letters through the post. She wants to pick up a telephone and talk to her bank - well actually she'd rather walk into the branch but movement isn't so easy for her these days so a telephone and hitting 0 repeatedly until she gets a human voice has to suffice. She's lived a long time and she's seen the world change and she is becoming sick of the machines everywhere. She wants to talk to people, they're the only contact she has some days with the outside world, with the sound of someones voice that doesn't emit from the television. She wants to chat to the checkout girl. She wants to chat to the bod at the bank. She wants contact - and she doesn't want it digitally. The time is past, in her mind, for learning the complications, she watches her granddaughter on the computer and her granddaughter has been kind and tried to show her how it all works, but it's too much information, and it's too impenetrable, and what on earth is the point to all the information any way? Why can't someone still bother to communicate with her in a way she understands? Why is everyone so determined to get rid of bits of paper, they've done well enough so far, why is everyone so totally focussed on publishing web addresses everywhere and not telling her anything any more?

There is a responsibility in communicating. There is a responsibility in holding a message or information which others need to know. That responsibility is to communicate so that all who need to receive it do so. In a world where floods, freak weather and all kinds of disasters can occur, for example, what danger is there in deciding that to cut costs, we will only communicate with those who provide us with a mobile phone number or who subscribe to our Twitter account? Are we going to enter a world eventually where you can only have your shopping if you suffer the swipe lottery; will it or wont it go through without the embarrassing supervisor call emitting from the depths of the machine? Are we going to cut communication costs so viciously that we cannot afford to communicate with the people on the edges, the older generation who didn't get taught how to use a PC at school, a skill which is becoming as necessary now as numeracy and literacy? Are we going to isolate an already vulnerable segment of our community in the rush to create communities online, thus creating a divide and barrier at a time when we must unify to try and deal with financial, environmental, moral, criminal and cohesive problems?

No has to be the answer. They're not up for negotiation, these questions. Like it or not, enthusiastic or not, some people do not want to be digital. They want to be analogue, they're quite happy being analogue and frankly, I think we're insulting them a little in our assertion that they should want to be digital.

Digital inclusion is necessary. It is. Digital is cheaper, auditable, time rich, convenient, indexed and dynamic. But there is a place for both. There is a place for a newspaper online as well as offline. There is a place for community offline as well as online too. The danger is the assumption that the voices, opinion, crowd sourcing and data obtained online is a clear and current representation of all voices and opinions which exist, and that all sectors of our society are adequately represented in the digital world. They're not. They never will be. The responsibility is entirely on us to ensure that they are not excluded as a result of that, that we continue to include them in the national conversation, that we check in with them, that we send them bits of paper, that we print a photograph in all it's stunning glory and continue to give joy to people who do not have the luxury of a screen to see it on.

Inclusion means including everyone.


  1. Bloody brilliant post, wish I could have written it, because it is so true. Could I add my fourpennorth to it in a comment? Feel free to delete it if you don't like it... I won't be offended, it is your post.
    What I would like to say is that I know many people like the lady you describe. We need them online to save them and government money. Her healthcare as she gets older will be more affordable. She is likely to be able to live longer in her own home. She can be cared for much better. She can see and talk to friends and relatives on her tv screen without leaving the house. In a fibre to the home country all this is possible. She doesn't have to learn how to use a mouse. She doesn't have to post a letter, buy a stamp, learn microsoft effin spreadsheets. With a decent fibre connection she can have a telepresence that just works. She can have a quick chat with the doctor, order food, pay her bills and all through a medium she understands, the TV.
    What she won't know is that the TV is actually a computer. The future for our elderly is ready and waiting. The problem is the incumbent is still working on the scarcity model trying to deliver the service through copper. This service is not worth paying for or trying to get to work unless you live within a reasonable distance from an exchange. It also stops working at peak times. This information is passed down a street and puts people off. The people at the other end of the street with decent connections still can't take advantage of next gen activities while they are stuck on copper.
    The current policy coming in is for councils to subsidise the roll out of fibre to the cabinet in areas bt say are 'uneconomic'. This is criminal use of public money. It is the easy way out, a stop gap solution to get faster broadband to people and score political brownie points. The incumbent can afford to do this job themselves, because the copper phone lines will still be the bearer to the home.
    It means that if an area gets fttc they will be stuck with it for a decade.
    With real fibre to the home there is no need for your lady to ever go to the 'internet' if she doesn't want to, most of her needs will be local. The doctor, the butcher the candlestick maker can be connected via local fibre, her own cloud. The costs would come way down as no backhaul is required. This is the future, but the dinosaurs who make the decisions don't realise it.
    They still want the grannies doing stupid lessons and buying laptops. I agree, they don't want to, and they shouldn't be pressurised into doing it. What they need is to see something that appeals to them, and those things can't work until we get next generation access instead of milking the copper until openretch have clawed back their £90 billion pension deficit.
    rant over.

  2. You tell this story so well, I wish more policy makers would listen to these arguments. I am a passionate advocate of digital inclusion, but we must find ways of reaching people who don't want to be digital, as well as those who can't, listen to their wants, needs and fears and do stuff that works for them.

  3. I get weary of people criticising the web as not being inclusive (I know that is not the position you are taking). I rarely hear the same people criticising books for excluding people. Is there a single form of communication that is inclusive for everyone?

    Text excludes those who cannot read - voice those who cannot hear. Much government speak excludes those who don't have the will to try and understand impenetrable nonsense.

    Comms needs to be start with being simple clear and direct, it should also usually be spread across a number of media to be inclusive. The most potent medium often remains meeting someone face to face.

    However *starting* with the web is a good idea - it can be easily shared and turned into print and a web page is much easier to copy and paste than a printed flyer.

  4. I'm an Internet marketer. I try to explain to all my clients that they don't need a Twitter account UNLESS that is where and how their customers want them to communicate with them. They ONLY need a website, email address etc if that is the choice of communication tool that their customer CHOOSES to use. Ditto a postal address, telephone etc. Otherwise, you cut people off. ie throw them into the chasm that the digital divide is creating, as you rightly point out.

    Our problem in this country is that we are too quick to assume that every shiny new toy is one we need to throw money at and adopt viz Govt iPhone apps, phenomenally expensive e-gov websites etc designed to force all of us online - take a look at HMRC site and you can see that no SME will be able to exist without the Net for filing taxes and accounts soon.

    There are times when a letter may be exactly the right communications tool, or the phone, or email, or Twitter, or Facebook, (or Youtube etc for one way informational type content.) However, knowing which is/are the right tool(s) means understanding your target audience, your customers. In the Government's case, and the telcos, there is a historical abject failure to do that and sadly, it seems to be continuing into the next decade where it should not even have been continued in this century.

    Mrs Physiotherapist's granny should be able to reach a human being whatever she chooses to do. It may be that soon she can 'ping' her butcher through the TV so he knows she would like him to ring her as soon as he is free to take an order which is then delivered to her home from a 'shopping hub delivery centre' where all orders are placed before being taken to a specific postcode/village etc. (Environmental considerations on deliveries will need to dawn on us soon or we are going to continually waste money and fuel). To Mrs PT Granny, this may come to seem totally natural rather than a scary bit of tech because her TV is not a scary object, like a laptop can be. She understands the butcher has customers in his shop to deal with and is quite happy to wait for the ringback. And when the delivery driver pops in to put her meat in her fridge for her, he will share the snippets of gossip, information and news from within her own community that she has been dying to hear, but can't get out enough to do so. She can become more digitally analogue without even realising it.

  5. some great comments coming in, this could be a belting resource! My vision of the future is a local cloud, fed with unlimited fibre bandwidth. Through this all local services could be virtually free, as no internet connectivity is needed. Councils could provide this connectivity if they got their act together and laid fibre. Many already own infrastructure for the schools networks but won't let the physio's granny on it. The current offering from the incumbent is very poor in over half the country. I don't blame folk for not wanting to bother with it. The final third still don't have connections and many are on dial up.
    We need next generation access for every generation now, and for future generations to come. Once we have it, and connectivity is easy then we can build a real digital economy and get this country rockin, and keep the grans at home but in touch with the world easily and cheaply.

  6. Wow. Agreed with every comment on here. The integration of digital comms with someones TV which they are already familiar with is a really good point, and one which was briefly muted during the Digital Inclusion Conference earlier this year. I had hopes, briefly, that there might be something as solid as a government initiative to assist with such a thing but like many government soundbites on digital, it seems to have disappeared into the ether somewhat.

    I also agree absolutely that multi-channel communication is imperative. There's a post down there somewhere below which explains my views on this. Every sector needs to understand the tools for the job, but perhaps none more crucially right now than communications. There has to be an acknowledgement that Twitter has a demographic, so does Facebook and that the government stating last week that they would be communicating about budget cuts predominantly through Facebook, I think shows a woeful lack of understanding of what a national conversation actually means.

    We are all going to continue that conversation whether it is joined by government or not, but that conversation takes place on doorsteps, in pubs, on Facebook, on Twitter, at school gates....all those missed ideas and opinions because the inital investment in asking the question precluded those groups of people even knowing there was something to be answered.

    Crowd sourcing is magical but useless if directed only at one individual crowd, if the question you're asking effects all crowds.

  7. I'm going to buck the trend of the comments here and take a contrarian perspective. Whilst I absolutely respect a *political* argument against technological determinism, I find the attitude of stubborn disregard to new forms of communication in favour of 'the good old days' of paper processing ultimately arrogant and lazy.

    It's also utterly inaccurate to assume that people cannot adapt, whatever their age, so long as they are capable of making decisions about their finances. Elderly citizens still have to adapt to new models of managing taxation, passport control and medical services *because it is required*. We're even seeing right now a shut down of analogue television which has been remarkably free of any problems among older people because a phased process of upgrades and training has been included.

    The problem with older people choosing not to learn about new systems of communication has much more to do with the continuing availability of older models of communication and poor investment of the organisation in training.

    Where new communication systems evolve, there will always be a level of resistance, because clients have a pre-existing investment in communications architecture. However, when there is phased shut down, and decent training, there is always an opportunity to facilitate adoption of new technologies. Indeed Helen Milner's work with UK Online Centres is still not adequately promoted as a means to enabling older people to engage with new media, happily and successfully. And as any gerontologist will attest, the exercise of the mind through embracing new systems of communication can actually have a beneficial effect on the brain.

    Yes, we do have a responsibility of communication. But that responsibility does not mean that outdated and costly systems of communication should be retained merely for those who choose not to adapt. Instead it means we must support citizens in that process of adaptation, and do what we can to battle against pure obstinacy.

    As I noted above, those who resist technology for political reasons are entirely acceptable. But they tend not to be making those decisions because it is easier to stick with existing communication systems, but because they are genuine luddites, protecting the interests of workers. But there's a huge difference between accommodating the interests of luddites and accommodating mere laziness and recalcitrance.

    We ALL have a responsibility to active citizenship. And if that means adopting new systems of communication, then whatever one's age, it should be considered a duty and not a torment to adapt.

  8. A lot of us who create the digital resources are "the older generation who didn't get taught how to use a PC at school."
    I'm not surprised that someone chooses not to use it because they don't see the benefit when their grandchild shows them. My oldest uncle (80 this year) started using the computer because he wanted to have video calls with his brothers who live too far away to see often.
    Sometimes people don't understand well enough (or think enough) about how to teach people to use a computer. A lot of it is about building their confidence. So many new to computers express concern that they "seem stupid" because it takes more than 2 minutes to learn how to get into a web site.
    It isn't easy to be connected to the internet when one is on a low income. It has been essential for my work for a decade, and yet most of the time I struggle to afford equipment and the internet connection.
    I also know that the local authority started aiming at digital inclusion years ago, long before the term 'digital inclusion' was widely used. It also recognised that the elderly and housebound needed to be included as well as the young.
    As for the lack of mobile phone signal...I find it difficult even in the largest urban areas in the North East, and virtually impossible in some of the most popular tourist spots outside the conurbations.

  9. Joanne> With all due respect, the posts below this one in my blog should make it absolutely irrevocably clear my stance on such things. I am a mass of enthusiasm when it comes to choosing to do things digitally. I believe, as I said in the comment above yours, that social media and digital comms in general are tools in the bag. They are appropriate in some circumstances and not in others, they target certain audiences, and not others.

    Personally, I tire of the assumption that we should switch everything to digital communications and blatantly disregard the obstacles in the way of doing so - what on earth is the point of only communicating with 66.6& of the population? Surely before you make the leap to 100% digital communications, you must ensure 100% of your audience is capable of actually receiving that message? To do anything else is irresponsible, and frankly quite rude. It sends a clear message that if you do not have a broadband connection, you are not worth the effort of communicating with. Nice.

    Janet> Me too. I didn't learn to use a PC until I was 16 and it was Windows 3.11. It was a unit in isolation with no means to communicate with anyone else.

    I agree that the presentation of digital communication needs to be better. I also believe that some people simply don't want to and shouldn't be forced to. If changing the wrapper that the package is contained within still doesn't engage peoples enthusiasm or motivate them then there has to come a point where we concede defeat in this.

    As I've said above, our infrastructure cannot currently support all our blue sky ideals of a digital world. Until it does, 1/3 of this country are excluded before we've even started and the digital divide will gape even further - and for the first time, perhaps, social and economic deprivation will not be related to money and class but to the availability of a broadband connection.

  10. Brilliant post. The importance of good communication, rather than the channel, is something we should all agree on. Many of the issues you raise regarding digital inclusion/exclusion are no different to some of the ones we've always dealt with before such as language and literacy. I've seen public sector organisations I've worked with plough money into creating and printing multiple language translated leaflets, often to no avail because the issue is actually lack of literacy in their native language so the leaflets make no difference. Instead face to face meetings and word of mouth work better.

    But we've also got to look at what the solutions are. It is a fact that online transactions cost significantly less than paper, face-to-face or even telephone. I also have some sympathy with the view that people have to take some responsibility for learning new ways to do things. Change happens, but people need help to adapt to it. We should be doing much more to help older people 'get' digital access. That requires investment in training and support, partially funded by the savings from 'going digital'. The issue of financial exclusion from digital is far more difficult to solve.

  11. Wow!
    Well worth 20 mins of my time to read this evening.

    I agree with the statement right at the start of this post - Inclusion means Everyone.

    The first place to start must always be with people and in a language that they are comfortable with. In tune with their surroundings and their lifestyle. It may be face to face at the drop-in or knit and natter or on-line via Facebook or Twitter.

    Get this right and you have communities, individuals and organisations who will listen, will speak and who you can have meaningful inclusive conversations with.
    ignore either side of the conversation or use an inappropriate social media tool ... and you won't.

    I use and talk a lot about this digital stuff, but always check people aren't lost along the way.

    100% *Digital* Inclusion maybe will never happen, but i'm sure we can see 100% *Everyone* Inclusion.

  12. Forgot to say.
    In the rush to save money and be more efficient in service delivery etc etc. we are always making the arguments and the incentives and the connections for being on-line more compelling. But we must never make digital the only way and must always keep a budget allocated for non-digital communications.

  13. Great post and some really good comments.

    It is really important to remember that not everyone has the ability to relearn new tricks, or would like to engage with a digital world. Some people need to be able to speak to a person.

    My two general comments are...

    1. If we pull our foot of the digital gas pedal to acknowledge that some people will never 'get it' then we will never get to our destination. There will always be a compromise and we, as a digital nation, will fall behind as we will always be slowing down for someone.

    2. When discussing 'Digital Inclusion' and trying to deliver more services digitally I take the view that the more converts we can get the better. I use the example of councils switching to direct debits for the payment of Council Tax - not everyone could do this, however we still pressed on as it delivered savings. Most importantly it freed up time and resources to help those that could not use this service by delivering a better service.

    My view is that we should press on with a digital world but use the freed up resources to support those who still need that help.

  14. Here we have the nutshell:
    "Most importantly it freed up time and resources to help those that could not use this service by delivering a better service."
    As long as we do that, as long as we all do that in all our different sectors, I honestly believe this will work. Infrastructure aside that is. Obviously without an adequate foundation none of this can happen - it's a point I'm labouring but it needs to be acknowledged by someone way up on high, I think.