Weblog on the Internet and public policy, journalism, virtual community, and more from David Brake, a Canadian academic, consultant and journalist
9 January 2004

David Wilcox “blogs here in detail”:http://partnerships.typepad.com/civic/2004/01/nonprofit_tech_.html about a research report from Jeremy Wyatt at a regeneration consultancy, “Hall Aitken”:http://www.hallaitken.co.uk/. It suggests UK Online centres should be less in libraries and more in community centres and integrated with the voluntary and community sector, but says nonetheless that they are largely successful in reaching those they target (disadvantaged people who wouldn’t have Internet access elsewhere).

By sheer coincidence on the same day I came across a paper by “Dr Neil Selwyn”:http://www.cf.ac.uk/socsi/selwyn/ in the September 2003 edition of the journal “Information, Communication & Society”:http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals/titles/1369118x.html – unfortunately not publicly accessible (unless you are an academic with a subscription – if so look “here”:http://www.ingenta.com/isis/searching/ExpandTOC/ingenta;jsessionid=3ok9ubgqnr53e.circus?issue=infobike://routledg/rics/2003/00000006/00000003&index=5)
The paper seems to be largely based on “a report Dr Selwyn did for BECTA”:http://www.becta.org.uk/page_documents/research/digidiv_selwyn.pdf in any case (which is publicly accessible).

Anyway here are some key findings:

…The survey data suggest that, in terms of people’s effective access to ICT, public access sites have a relatively slight profile when compared with household and wider family access – perceived to offer ready access to ICT by only a minority of respondents. Moreover, when the use of these public ICT sites is examined, there is little evidence of public ICT sites attracting those social groups who may otherwise be excluded or marginalized from the information age.”

Update:Jeremy Wyatt himself was good enough to comment on this post. He said:

“I can see where you have seen a contradiction in the two reports but actually they don’t conflict in any way. As as researcher you’ll forgive me for suggesting you read the whole of both reports…we actually quote the work Neil and his colleagues did in our report.

One of the thrusts of Neil’s report is that people don’t use public internet access points much. The thrust of ours is that UK online centres have helped to introduce the internet to many new users and helped many gain skills and confidence. Our report stresses the introduction and skills services. It does not confirm or deny that public internet access once you have these skills is a viable approach. It refers to Neil’s work to suggest that there is data to suggest the opposite.

But, and its a big but, things change fast in this field and maybe public internet access has a big future once its ubiquitous.”

Mea culpa! I don’t have time to go more into this at the moment but I do encourage people to read both reports. The Hall Aitken report is “here”:http://www.dfes.gov.uk/research/programmeofresearch/index.cfm?type=5&keywordlist1=0&keywordlist2=0&keywordlist3=0&andor=or&keyword=CMF+funded+uk+online+centres&x=94&y=15.

Like Wyatt, Selwyn suggests that siting UK Online centres out of libraries, schools, colleges and museums would help and suggests

“another alternative strategy would be to develop a shift in emphasis away from community sites towards developing systems of community resources, which can then be loaned into people’s houses, thus building upon and augmenting people’s existing access to and use of ICT in friends’ and relatives’ houses.”

However he concludes pessimistically, “Although proving useful for those that use them, it appears likely that such sites will only ever fulfil a limited social role and are certainly not a panacea to the perceived inequalities of the information age.”

I share his pessimism because I feel not enough is being done to explain to disadvantaged people how what is on the Internet is relevant to their needs (and particularly not enough is done to encourage them to contribute themselves – which would help in turn to narrow the relevance gap).

I hope at least that the common recommendation of both reports – moving public access closer to where the public actually likes to hang out – will be listened to. To its credit the Office of the e-Envoy in its “annual report”:http://www.e-envoy.gov.uk/assetRoot/04/00/60/69/04006069.pdf seems to be taking this on board to some extent. The Government is funding ‘get online’ initiatives with the voluntary and community sector and spending around £3m (not a lot admittedly!) through Culture Online to, “engage hard-to-reach audiences, encouraging them to discover the potential of new digital technologies (p. 11)


  1. There may not be a contradiction between the reports if you look at access, use and skills. Hall Aitken reported nonprofit centres more able to attract particular excluded groups than other types of centre. But commmunity access for developing skills isn’t the same as being able to use a computer as and when you wish.
    Report author Jeremy Wyatt wrote recently on the conet list
    “We’ve got a reasonable stack of evidence to suggest that you need access at home, work or college to really be included in any real sense. A major issue for many users of community based centres who have no home access is that they feel they cannot really put their skills to use. You are not part of the information society (or whatever) if you have to walk half a mile to a centre that is only open a few hours a day when you need to get online.”

    Comment by Anonymous — 9 January 2004 @ 1:52 pm

  2. Point well taken. Though I suspect if people came to value Internet access somehow through enlightened education programmes they might be willing to make that half-mile walk (and hopefully the centre they went to would be well enough funded to allow them more than half an hour on the system and be open more than a few hours a day).

    Comment by David Brake — 9 January 2004 @ 2:10 pm

  3. My mother has been happily emailing her widely-scattered children from her local public library (Winchcombe, Glos.). She also uses sainsburys.co.uk to get food delivered; without the free Internet access her life would be more difficult. She’d never had an email account before this.

    Comment by wjr — 9 January 2004 @ 5:58 pm

  4. An interesting question, though – was it anything the public library did that caused her to start using the Internet (training, promotion etc)? Alternatively was it you or the rest of the family that encouraged her and was the library just the most convenient way for her to get started? If the online access hadn’t existed there would she have gotten a computer and/or used a friend’s or a cybercafe?

    Comment by David Brake — 9 January 2004 @ 6:07 pm

  5. We encouraged her to use the library – she was aware (I don’t know from what source) that it had free Internet access available. One visit, my brother and sister marched her down to the library and set up a Yahoo mail account. She’s been using it ever since, and I think is now quite dependent on it for keeping in touch with family. She’s had occasional tech help from library staff, but more often it’s one of us helping her out.

    If they hadn’t had access at the library, she would most likely not be using the Internet at all: it would be imposing to use a friend’s, and cybercafes cost money.

    Comment by wjr — 9 January 2004 @ 6:37 pm

  6. Glass half empty: To an engineer, the glass is too big.

    Comment by Lee — 15 January 2004 @ 6:06 am

  7. Community groups better at reaching socially excluded than formal training schemes

    Public access points such as UK Online Centres has been seen as a way of reaching out to the socially excluded – do they work?

    Trackback by Headshift — 9 January 2004 @ 3:37 pm

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