Tag Archives: digital divide

The private sector and the digital divide: an unhelpful invasion of public library spaces?

Image c/o Taichiro Ueki on Flickr used under a CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0 license.

Ever since the emergence of the internet, there have been concerns about those excluded as services increasingly move online. Commonly referred to as the “digital divide”, this exclusion has manifested itself in two distinct ways: lack of access (first level) and that of skills (second level). Progress has been made with the former in recent years as the numbers of those without internet have steadily declined, but the latter has proven far more difficult to address.

Over the course of the past two years, the number of people that have never accessed the internet has fallen by approximately 15% (from just over 7m in the first quarter of 2013 to just under 6m in the equivalent quarter in 2015). However, a lack of internet skills is still stubbornly high. In a BBC online skills survey last year, the corporation found that 20% of UK adults lacked basic online skills. Indeed, the overall lack of skills (particularly across the poorest households) remained unchanged between 2013 and 2014. These findings have been reinforced by a recent report by Go.On UK that found that more than 12m people “do not have the skills to prosper in the digital era”.

Traditionally, public libraries have been a key mechanism to close this so-called divide. Indeed, the People’s Network was borne out of this effort to close the gap and help more people get online. Libraries were seen as the ideal place to provide the support required. They offer a neutral space free from corporate influence, and are staffed by individuals trained to seek out and evaluate information. However, recent years have seen widespread library closures and cuts to staffing levels that have seriously impeded the services they provide. As a result, the libraries crucial role in bridging the digital divide has been severely undermined.

Whilst the role of libraries in tackling the digital divide has diminished, private sector organisations have stepped in to fill the gap. In March 2015, for example, BT and Barclays announced that they were going to work together to connect more people to the internet and to provide support to help people develop the skills they need. In order to provide this access and support, BT and Barclays would be working with local authorities to deliver the initiative in public libraries and community centres in England.

The delivery of this initiative is particularly interesting given the role of public libraries in this area and begs the question why such an initiative needs the direction of either Barclays or BT given the support public libraries have provided. However on the surface, in terms of closing the digital skills gap, there appears to be some benefit in their involvement. For example, Barclay’s Code Playground initiative is potentially a useful way to teach children how to code – a skill that is increasingly regarded as an important one for children to develop (although there are differing views on the extent to which coding itself should be prioritised). However, this option is only available if they can visit a Barclays branch during a weekday with an adult and can provide a laptop. An option, therefore, not available to those without a computer at home or those whose circumstances prevent a visit to the bank on a weekday.

Initiatives such as the Code Playground could, of course, be delivered effectively by public libraries should they have the funding and staffing to make it happen. Indeed, with public libraries being far more accessible to the general public (and a lot more child-friendly) there is a real opportunity here for libraries to develop the digital skills of the next generation and help the UK lead the world in bringing through the next generation of coders.  Delivering such an initiative that requires individuals to visit a branch and bring expensive equipment with them is perhaps not the most effective way of addressing the deeply entrenched digital skills divide.

The move to enlist Barclays and BT into the drive to tackle the digital skills gap emerged as an outcome of the Digital Inclusion Charter, where 38 signatories committed in December 2014 to reduce the number of people who are offline by 25% by 2016. The public library scheme will be run by Barclays Digital Eagles and BT’s Digital Friends. BT volunteers will be “working with trained Barclays staff – called Barclays Digital Eagles”, although it is difficult to determine who BT will employ as “Digital Friends” to deliver this initiative.

Furthermore, there is a lack of clarity regarding Barclays “Digital Eagles”: are they Barclays staff that have volunteered for these roles and been given extra training? Are these people experts who were recruited specifically to provide this service in libraries? Or are they simply bank staff doing this as an additional duty? It is unclear from the information currently in the public domain etc how Barclay’s will deliver this service. What we do know is that of the 377 UK-wide vacancies available at Barclays in August 2015, none have the title “Digital Eagle”.

Problems presented by the BT/Barclays partnership

There are a multitude of problems presented by this tie-up between BT/Barclays, and public libraries in England.

  • The encroachment of a commercial enterprise into a neutral public space such as public libraries is fundamentally at odds with the ethos of freely providing access to services for all.

 

  • The attempt by commercial enterprises to take over the roles of public servants: on what basis are volunteers working on behalf of a commercial body able to better provide the service than trained staff/volunteers working in public libraries?

 

  • How long is this funding going to last? It’s stated to be a two year project, but what happens when it ends? How will Barclays, BT and the government ensure that the development of digital skills continues after the project comes to a close?

 

  • Hardware – with Barclays Code Playground scheme (designed to help teach children to code), children have to bring their own laptop to the sessions. As this pairing of BT and Barclays seems to cover the internet connection (BT) and skilled support (Barclays), has there been any consideration regarding the provision of hardware? All three are required to effectively tackle a lack of digital skills, how will they ensure all three are available? Or is it only accessible to those who can provide the equipment?

 

  • Staffing – are commercial enterprise staff going to be allowed to use a public, neutral space? What will be the checks and controls on suitability of Barclays staff to work with often vulnerable users, such as Disclosure verification? Can we be sure that the staff provided by Barclays/BT will adhere to the highest levels of trust and privacy, meeting the standards expected of professional librarians?

 

  • Will BT or Barclays be allowed to use this neutral public space to promote their own commercial enterprises? Will there be any requirement for them to be entirely neutral when dealing with issues in terms of communications and banking?

 

  • When will this service be available? Is it only during dedicated sessions, as with those Barclays currently hold in their branches? Or will it be available during library opening hours, whatever they may be? Will BT/Barclays staff be available on evenings and weekends when the library is open?

 

  • Confusion over availability – digital TV means viewers across the UK will be seeing adverts for this service, which is actually only going to be available in England and Wales. This creates unrealistic expectations in potential service users of the resources available to them in their location, which their local public library staff will have to deal with.

 

Before the commencement of such an initiative, some clarity on these issues would be helpful and made clear to the general public.

Comment from CILIP – the professional body for librarians

To date, CILIP have not made any official comment on the implications of this collaboration between BT and Barclays, restricting their references to the announcement to a single tweet linking to a story published on The Bookseller website on 19th March. They also tweeted a link to another Bookseller story about the official launch of the pilot scheme on the 22nd July, but have not voiced any official concerns about this intrusion of commercial enterprises into a public space. Whilst there has been no comment to date, a representative from CILIP has attended all the meetings of the overseeing body, the Leadership for Libraries taskforce and have therefore been aware of the developments. It’s possible, of course, that all of the concerns raised above have been put forward by CILIP and these have been factored in to the development of the project.

The implementation of the scheme

The launch of the trial scheme took place on 22nd July 2015. As most of the publicity was on Government websites and the sites of the companies involved, the launch seems to have gone somewhat under the radar, aided by the lack of commentary by the professional body.

The press release mentions 100 libraries and community centres being involved in the scheme. The initial reports stated the scheme would cover “57 libraries and 13 community centres across the country. A further 10 sites, including a care home, a charity home and a homeless centre will also be provided with free wi-fi” – a total of 80 sites. Details of the remaining twenty sites are not currently clear which begs the question, what’s happened to involvement of the care home, charity home and homeless centre in the scheme? BT state that “more than 100 libraries and community centres” will deliver the project. The first Leadership for Libraries meeting indicates that the funding is for “80 libraries and 20 community centres in areas of social deprivation”, but in a later meeting the scheme is proposed to cover “100 sites including over 50 libraries”. Thirty libraries appear to have been dropped from the scheme, but there is no indication as to why.

Trying to locate specific detail about this scheme appears to be particularly difficult. How many libraries and other locations are actually involved in this scheme? Where can we find out which ones they are, and where they are? Why is there no consistency in the messages being published about this scheme? One of the risks of commercial enterprises being involved in public spaces and services is that the entire culture of a corporate body is focussed on protecting its own sensitive commercial secrets – a culture at odds with public body accountable to the public. The result seems to be what we have here with the BT/Barclays tie-up: a project that is both difficult to verify and one riddled with conflicting information.

Alternative approaches

In contrast to the above approach of inviting commercial enterprises to take possession of elements of a public space and services, an alternative project has also recently been launched in England by Arts Council England (ACE). As part of the drive to increase skills, ACE have announced the availability of  £7.1 million in funding for public libraries in England to access, which will run for six months and help enable free wifi access across all public libraries in England. Confusingly though, that initiative is also a “key development” of the Leadership for Libraries Taskforce in parallel to the BT/Barclays project.

Final questions

It would be helpful if BT, Barclays, and the Leadership for Libraries Taskforce address the issues raised above, and communicated with greater clarity about the nature of the scheme and how it will be delivered. Answers to the following questions would be particularly beneficial in terms of the roll-out of this scheme:

  1. How many public libraries are involved in this initiative? Which specific ones are they?
  2. What restrictions are there on the employees of commercial enterprises while in a neutral public space? Are they allowed to promote their products, or try and gain a commercial advantage by attempting to gain clients while positioned within public libraries?
  3. Was any analysis done on the viability of asking commercial enterprises to donate funds to public libraries to allow public library staff to provide the services which those commercial enterprises now wish to provide in libraries, prior to BT and Barclays being given permission to place their own staff within those spaces?
  4. What protections are in place for the vulnerable users of public libraries who make use of the resources provided by the BT/Barclay partnership? Both in terms of the checking of the commercial participants in this scheme, and ensuring that no inappropriate promotion of products is being undertaken.
  5. Who is responsible for the security of the machines which participants will use for the initiative, e.g. ensuring that no malware is installed on the machines involved.
  6. What is the long-term plan for supporting this approach to developing digital skills in the general public, once this project is completed?

Should access to the internet be a fundamental right…for everyone?

(Image c/o gianni on Flickr)

Overcoming the divide between the richest and the poorest in society has always been a significant challenge. The wealthiest in society have always been in a position to afford the services required to improve their quality of life: better healthcare, better education etc etc. In the twentieth century, particularly post-1945, there were renewed efforts to address this disparity through the introduction of the National Health Service, a functioning welfare system and free secondary education for all pupils.

Between 1910-1979, the divide between the wealthiest and the poorest in the UK dropped significantly, particularly after 1936. Since that period, however, the trend has been in the opposite direction as the wealthiest take a larger share of income than at any point since 1940. This widening of the divide between the richest and the poorest is, in part, a symptom of the watering down of the post-1945 social contract, characterised by a move away from the primacy of society towards the primacy of the individual. Technological advances have, however, provided an opportunity to close this gap once more.

However, as yet, this potential has yet to be realised, not least due to the expense of the technology and the skills required to exploit it. Indeed, whilst the impact of easier access by the public to relevant information has been felt to a degree, the continued existence of a digital divide hampers progress towards the more equitable society the technology can help to deliver.

At present, there are around 7 million people in the UK who have never accessed the internet (the number without access is obviously higher). The divide presents a number of difficulties for those without access to the internet. For example, it can hamper their child’s performance at school. It can put them at a disadvantage when it comes to their health and, as preventative care pushes up the agenda, the implications for the unconnected are stark. It can affect them economically, both in terms of the savings they would make and as a consequence of welfare reforms by the UK coalition in pushing social security online. Closing this divide can, therefore, improve life chances and help to shrink the gap between the richest and the poorest (it obviously won’t eliminate the gap on its own, that would require more wide-ranging action).

As government services have shifted online, the commercial potential for ever faster broadband has begun to be realised and the economic benefits of getting everyone online are talked up, there has been an awareness of the importance of addressing the divide between those connected to the internet and those that are not. However, one group is often excluded when it comes to identifying and supporting the so-called ‘information poor’ – prisoners.

Towards the end of last year, the Prison Reform Trust and Prisoners’ Education Trust released a report on computer and internet access in prisons. Through the Gateway: How Computers Can Transform Rehabilitation [PDF 1.46MB] explores the use of information and communication technology (ICT) in prisons and its potential impact on rehabilitation. Based on a survey of prisons sent to all prison governors and directors in England and Wales supported by the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), a focus group of prisoners’ families, prison visits and expert roundtables, the report argues that drastic change is needed and access to ICT should be reconsidered.

(Image c/o Marc Soller via Flickr.)

Now, some might argue that if you are in prison you lose your liberty and therefore any right to access services such as the internet. However, whether we like it or not, many prisoners are only removed from society on a temporary basis, they will have to be reintegrated at some point. As such, we need to consider their return to society, their re-integration and, of course, provide the necessary support to help ensure that they do not re-offend. As the Prison Trust underline in their coverage of the report on their website, nearly half of all prisoners (47%) are reconvicted within a year of their release. Furthermore, in 2011-12, “just 27% of prisoners entered employment on release from prison”. The challenge for us as a society is to reduce the re-offending rate and ensure that prisoners are not pushed to the edges of society once they have finished serving their sentence.

Changes to the welfare system are in danger of making integration increasingly difficult for those released from prison. With the government pushing job seekers online to find work or suffer associated penalties, it is more crucial than ever that prisoners are not left behind and therefore placed at a serious disadvantage when it comes to finding work. The scale of the problem is reinforced in the report:

47% of prisoners say they have no qualifications. This compares to 15% of the working age general population in the UK.

21% of prisoners reported needing help with reading and writing or ability with numbers.

With such a lack of skills, it is clear that significant support is needed in getting prisoners online, preparing them for work outside of prison and ensuring they are not left behind or penalised by the government’s new social security regime. When almost a half of prisoners have no qualifications whatsoever and 1 in 5 need help with reading and writing, there are clearly significant barriers ahead in terms of their re-integration into society. As two prisoners noted in the report:

“Here’s why you need internet for resettlement: to keep up with changes outside – job criteria can change while you’re inside; checking on housing by particular postcodes – co-ordinated with your conditions of release.”

“It’s a bit of a risk – being linked into the internet – but the bigger risk is sending people out who are not able to cope and who cannot find gainful employment.”

The provision of internet access to prisoners can not only help develop their skills and ensure they are not left behind after they have served their sentence, it can also help to further their education. The growth of Massive Open Online Learning Courses (MOOCs) provides the opportunity for opening up education for all free of charge (provided they are online of course). Why should those with the skills to utilise the internet be prevented from furthering their education and helping to increase their chances of employment after their release? If we are to be serious about reducing re-offending rates, then shouldn’t we be looking at all the options and see an internet connection not as a luxury, but an important tool in helping to ensure prisoners can be re-integrated after serving their time?

Prison libraries could play a key role in ensuring access is provided and the technical skills of prisoners are developed. However, they are hampered by a number of restrictions placed upon them. Librarians working in prisons are severely restricted as a result of their equipment being connected to a tightly controlled prison network. Many sites are blocked, including blogs, social media and sometimes government websites. Although such restrictions are in place, prisoners are still not permitted to use the library computer because it is connected to the internet. Instead, prisoners are only provided access to standalone computers that are not connected to the internet and only permit the user to play games or write legal letters. That is, of course, if their prison is lucky to have any computers at all.

Whilst there may be legitimate concerns about the kind of material certain prisoners may attempt to access, such restrictions are not helpful in trying to ensure their reintegration into society when their sentence is served. The opportunities available online to learn new skills, not to mention the opportunity to learn basic ICT skills with the help of a trained prison librarian, can play a significant role in reducing the re-offending rate and provide former prisoners with the opportunity to make a more positive contribution to society. As Nick Hardwick, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, notes in the report’s foreword:

“We can’t go on with prisons in a pre-internet dark age: inefficient, wasteful and leaving prisoners woefully unprepared for the real world they will face on release. I have not met one prison professional who does not think drastic change is needed.”

If we want to reduce reoffending and ensure a more equitable society, then we need to address the digital divide that exists not only across our communities, but between our communities and those that have been excluded from them. It will prove controversial with many, but as the world rapidly changes around us, we need to ensure that those excluded can be reintegrated into a world that can be very different from the one they were excluded from.