Comment: Internet divides not conquers

29 Nov 2005

There was a time when e-government was seen as one of the main drivers in promoting digital or e-inclusion. In fact many people still believe this to be the case. But it was very much the vogue about five or six years ago, at the beginning of the e-government hype. In fairness to those who were advocating this ‘solution’ to the digital divide, they did so with the best of intentions and on the understanding that e-government would be all pervasive — that putting services online would make them more attractive and thereby attract the digitally divided to the information age.

These ambitions may be yet another example of the tendency to focus on the high-technology solution without taking the trouble to analyse the problem which, as we all know now, has been the hallmark of the ‘e’ epidemic that swept across the world in the wake of the arrival of the internet along with the great advances in computing technology over the past 10 to 15 years. The theory in relation to putting services online was that by making this new and easy-to-access channel available to public service users, they would all come over to the online route and, since the majority of public service users (as in recipients of welfare, health and other social services) are already socially marginalised or disadvantaged to some degree or other, at least they could now become e-included.

Quite apart from the fact that the initial online services were not directed towards the less well off (I’m thinking of the Revenue On-Line Service (ROS) that focused primarily on the business community) — or, indeed, the Motor Tax On-Line service that is not a ‘social’ service, not least because, similar to ROS, it is designed to collect cash rather than distribute it — the notion that the excitement of getting on to the Government over the internet for access to information or a service was such a great puller was perhaps a bit off the mark.

Even if you are unfortunate enough to be living, or even just existing, in circumstances that mean you have to be in contact with a public office every day of the week, I doubt if the facility to sit on your backside and use the internet would mitigate the misery that made you have to do it in the first place. And for things such as compliance, as in paying your motor tax, the online facility doesn’t remove the burden of cost. It just makes it more convenient to process the silly paperwork — once a year. Big deal.

The Central Statistics Office has been telling us that the main use of the internet is for email; followed by online product information and shopping; and then travel and accommodation booking. E-government comes next. As is always the case with statistics, you have to look wider than the raw data before you start jumping to conclusions. You could say — if you were a strong advocate of e-government — that online government is up there with the top four reasons to use the internet. But before you get carried away, you’d have to look at other reasons for using it. And the reality is that there are precious few reasons other than these top four. And if you haven’t got access to these online facilities, does it make a whole lot of difference to your lot?

The other thing that has to be borne in mind is that, for most governments that are promoting schemes to maximise access by those who are in danger of being marginalised in a digital divide, the issue is not primarily about addressing the ‘lot’ of the marginalised, but about addressing the perception that they are not effectively tackling the digital divide. To put it another way, the effort is more about promoting the ‘solution’ of connectivity and internet access, rather than exploiting the technologies to improve the circumstances of the less connected. To do that, of course, you have to really know what peoples’ problems are and then to see if all of this stuff can be used as a lever to resolve those problems. The difficulty here is that there are as many problems as there are people, so you can’t get too granular in your analysis.

That is part of the thinking that went into the Mobhaile project — being promoted by the Local Government Computer Services Board — to provide online facilities for people with common interests (sporting, business, mountain rescue, educational and so on) to collaborate and share information. While Mobhaile doesn’t dictate why or for what purpose people should collaborate, the facility can be used to bring more people into the digital world by giving them a good reason to do so, if they wish.

By making Mobhaile available to community groups, with the assistance of local authorities for support and training and so on, the theory is that the number of people who will be brought in will continue to grow because community groups and organisations tend to be formed around issues of common interest. The beauty of the internet is that the common interest doesn’t have to be constrained by location or place. This has all sorts of possibilities for individuals who have particular interests that are not all that common but that they share with people in a much more dispersed community.

Having said all that, Mobhaile is still very much a solution — but a solution to the challenge of building the physical infrastructure for a community to develop and prosper. But it allows people to look at their problems or objectives as individuals or in communities in a different context. And that context is really only the facility for greater communication, data and information sharing, and access to wider sources of relevant knowledge. The difference is that unlike things such as online shopping or hotel booking, the community themselves build their own content or reason to use the technology. That itself is reason enough for people to use it.

By Syl O’Connor