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

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5 January 2004

It’s good to see the UK government has ambitious plans to ensure its citizens have Internet access. Recently British Telecom (responding no doubt to government pressure) announced it will guarantee that all of Britain will have “broadband availability by 2005”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/3276621.stm – possibly to be accomplished using new “radio broadband”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/3323681.stm technology it is testing.

More impressive still, it now seems the Government is promising “home access for all”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/3320967.stm – ‘every home in the UK should have a connection to online services through a digital network by 2008 – whether through a personal computer, digital television, mobile phone or other device’.

Of course this is not as marvelous a promise as it seems since it is not a commitment to provision of the full Internet – only nebulously-defined ‘online services’ – almost certainly limited at the margins to email and basic government services. It also says nothing about likely user costs or incentives for use (without which the theoretical capacity to connect will likely languish unused in the third of UK households who don’t already have Internet access).

22 December 2003

David Wilcox posts a link to “twelve academic reports about technology and everyday life in Europe”:http://www.lse.ac.uk/collections/EMTEL/plan.html recently published by the “European Media and Everyday Life Network”:http://www.emtel2.org/ and suggests given their usefulness that a user-friendly version should have been written. Indeed it should but one could argue that it is not necessarily the role of the academic to produce such a summary.

To some extent the complexity of the language does stem from the fact that the papers are aimed directly at an academic audience and only indirectly at the wider public (as “Prof Roger Silverstone”:http://www.lse.ac.uk/collections/media@lse/whosWho/rogerSilverstone.htm, one of the report’s authors, responded).

As far as I can make out there are four possible paths from academic research to policy:

  • paper -> policy (rare – as papers are usually not widely read or readable outside their intended audience)
  • paper -> journalist/writer -> policy (here is where hopefully someone like David Wilcox or myself might fit in)
  • paper -> academically-trained civil servant -> policy (does this happen often? I hope so, but lack evidence)
  • paper -> academics -> students who eventually become politicians/activists/journalists etc (the ‘mainstream’ way academic knowledge gets used – rather slow and indirect but, I hope, effective)

I would be curious to hear from my readers which road to academic policy influence is most effective and how academics with interest in policy could help the process along.

Getting back to these particular reports, many academic papers these days come with abstracts – a hundred words or so providing a summary of what the research has found – and often keywords as well, for integrating into databases. It is a shame that the ‘house style’ in this instance seems to be not to have such a summary. There are abstracts for the project reports but these are easy to overlook on the report web page and they are themselves several pages long.

David Wilcox’s observations point to a possible need for a second abstract for academic papers aimed at policy questions – one that tries to give the layman an idea of the paper’s findings without touching on the theoretical background- even if all that does is get the layman to ask an academic friend to take a look at it for them!

15 December 2003

A report in the Guardian says little new support was offered by the developing world to close the digital divide and suggests governments and NGOs didn’t really interact. Tellingly:

While the government leaders made their speeches in main auditorium, other people and organizations showcased their projects in a separate hall on the floor below… There was relatively little interaction, with government officials using their own entrances, restaurants, lounges and even toilets.

5 December 2003

The iGeneration includes some guest opinion pieces about the “World Summit on the Information Society”:http://www.itu.int/wsis/ , some basic facts and figures and some (generally rather upbeat, uncritical) case studies of ICT use in the developing world.

To take one example of their treatment of the significance of ICT use in the developing world, the BBC profiles a “Brazilian telecentre using Linux”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/3250876.stm in a poor area of Sao Paulo with the stated aim of improving employability. Well:
1) users only get an hour a day – not much time to learn
2) I wonder how many of the users are using the connections to learn skills and how many are simply recreationally surfing or emailing
3) I wonder whether programming or software-using skills based on Linux are transferable to the commercial market in Brazil (possibly more so than elsewhere since the Brazilian government appears increasingly interested in promoting Linux use, but still a concern)
4) As “Steve Buckley”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/3251024.stm hints at, I wonder whether the money spent on the telecentre might have better been spent on, say, a conventional literacy programme or some other intervention.

More money to close the digital divide would of course be welcome but not if it comes at the expense of other programmes…

21 November 2003

Posted on behalf of Dorothea Kleine – please respond to her not to me!

Dear All,
we are PhD students interested in the potential the Internet holds for Development (capacity building, social capital, NGO networks, participation, e-governance, e-commerce, e-learning etc.). We realize this topic is very complex and that therefore from whatever angle you look at it, it helps to exchange ideas with colleagues who are looking at the same thing, but from a different perspective.

We would therefore like to initiate an interdisciplinary and intercollegiate working group on “Internet and Development”.

We are inviting graduate students (and possibly more senior researchers) from subjects as diverse as Development Studies, Media and Communications, Geography, Information Technology, Anthropology and Economics etc. from across colleges and universities in the London area to join.

One idea of a format would be to form a wider virtual network while meeting as a working group at the “Stanhope Centre for Communications Policy Research”:http://www.stanhopecentre.org/ in London every two weeks or monthly. The Centre is located at Marble Arch, just across the street from Hyde Park. There would be office space available and we can also book meeting rooms and a conference room free of charge.

Our first meeting for all that are interested will be held on *Thursday, December 4th* at the Stanhope Drinks Party, which starts at 6:30 p.m. at Stanhope Centre (Stanhope Place, nearest tube: Marble Arch). There we can get to know each other and discuss the format of our network, possible themes for conferences and ideas for research projects.

If you are planning to come, or interested in joining but not able to come that day, please email. We are very much looking forward to hearing from you!

7 November 2003

Scott Burgess of The Daily Ablution has done “a little digging”:http://dailyablution.blogs.com/the_daily_ablution/2003/11/a_look_at_ican_.html about the people behind the “iCan project”:https://blog.org/archives/cat_egovernment.html#000899 and is unhappy with what he has found – one of the iCan ‘roving reporters’ “Stuart Ratcliffe”:http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/ican/U517705 is backing an “anti-war group”:http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/ican/club32 on the site, which he sees as problematic given the BBC’s claim to be impartial. Well, I would be surprised if any BBC reporter, particularly one with a political ‘beat’ had no political opinions at all, but it was pretty unwise of Stuart to back a group through the site – particularly since it will then make it pretty well impossible for him to report on the group and be taken seriously!

On the other hand, I think it is a legitimate point of view to suggest that it is better that all reporters should be open about any political views they may bring to their coverage, then strive to ensure that these don’t bias their actual reporting (which is after all the important point). It’s only possible to ‘adjust for’ a reporter’s views, after all, if we know what they are.

As for whether iCan is biased, I suggest we need to withold judgement and see if there is any evidence of preferential treatment in the way the site is run rather than rushing to judge the people who run it by their expressed private views.

26 October 2003

Some very useful-looking web tools to help UK citizens to hold their national representatives (MPs) to account and to organize offline and online campaigns for change. Public Whip takes publicly available information about all Westminister MPs and brings it together in an easy-to-view manner. You can see how often your MP votes, how often they vote with their party and, most importantly, how they voted on specific issues.

“iCan”:http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/ican/ from the BBC is a long-awaited site (still in beta) designed to enable and encourage community activism. It includes advice from activists, tools to link grassroots campaigns to larger organizations, and roving reporters who will publicise success stories. If it is done right this could be big (but if it is too successful it could involve the BBC in some interesting rows!). One interesting thing I notice already – I don’t know yet whether this is crucial or a weakness – is that to register you are encouraged to give your real name. For most online communities this would be an advantage, but if I were starting a campaign on something controversial I might not want to do so in a way that could allow employers to identify me. Of course, there’s nothing in the BBC’s registration process to prevent you from lying…

Thanks to “NTK”:http://www.ntk.net/2003/10/10/ for the links.

11 October 2003

I just read that Demos – an influential UK thinktank – has now put almost all of its catalogue up online for free download (using a “license”:http://www.demos.co.uk/aboutus/openaccess_page296.aspx derived from the “Creative Commons”:http://www.creativecommons.org/ license).

Worth a browse if you are a UK-based policy wonk…

9 October 2003

The UK Government’s “Strategy Unit”:http://www.number10.gov.uk/output/Page77.asp (a civil service department promoting forward planning) has just put out a report on “The Future of Social Exclusion”:http://www.number10.gov.uk/files/pdf/socexissues.pdf [PDF].

I am disappointed that it barely mentions the role of the digital divide and while it describes the gap (using figures that are four years old) it doesn’t say anything about how, in the Government’s view it has emerged, or what they intend to do about it. I know the Government is concerned about this issue – I hope the sketchiness of the response in this particular document is not representative of the priority the issue is now being given.

7 October 2003

“A new survey”:http://users.ox.ac.uk/~oxis/index.html by the “Oxford Internet Institute”:http://www.oii.ox.ac.uk/ has provided some invaluable detail about the exact nature of the digital divide. I find the conclusions drawn in media reports as interesting as the data itself. The Guardian’s headline and opening paragraphs: Digitally divided by choice concentrate on the survey’s discovery that only 14 percent (mis-reported as four percent) of the UK population doesn’t have Internet access themselves and doesn’t at least know someone who could send an email for them.

It’s true that many of those who are not online themselves could get access at local libraries or ‘borrow’ Internet access from a friend, but without much first-hand experience of Internet access they are unlikely to understand what it could do for them.

The BBC: “Net ‘worth little to many Brits'”:http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/3121950.stm gets more to the heart of the matter, though its headline is misleading – it should say something more like, ‘Net perceived as unimportant by many Brits’.

I think Tom Steinberg gets it exactly right when he “suggests”:http://partnerships.typepad.com/civic/2003/09/its_about_the_v.html that if 96% of Internet non-users don’t feel they are missing anything it is important that government and civil society organizations start giving them good reasons to get interested. I would add that the way the Internet is presented when it is discussed is also at fault. The Government depicts it as a way to learn and get employed, commercial organizations depict it as a place to shop and the news often depicts it as full of oddballs and paedophiles. There isn’t much room for discussion of how to use it to meet people (other than sexual partners), express yourself creatively or to organize politically.

It is worth noting that the questionnaire options for perceived disadvantages of lack of Internet access appear to be limited to: ‘could do job better [if I was online]’, ‘trouble being contacted’ and ‘disadvantaged at work’. Nothing about learning, information gathering or even saving money let alone political organizing as possible things someone might have missed out on.

The information available via the OII and news reports remains sketchy – the full results are due to be publicised and discussed “in Oxford on 22nd October”:http://www.oii.ox.ac.uk/events.shtml

Thanks to “Techdirt”:http://techdirt.com/articles/20030918/0047201.shtml for the link

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