Last Thursday I was fortunate enough to attend the National Digital Conference, ND11, at Old Billingsgate in London. The theme of the day was ‘Building a Networked Nation’ and featured contributions from Digital Champion Martha Lane Fox, Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt and the BBC’s technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones. The speakers covered such issues as digital by default, digital exclusion and superfast broadband. On this final point, Jeremy Hunt announced that it was the coalition Government’s intention to make superfast broadband available to 90% of the UK’s population by 2015. Cabinet Secretary Francis Maude, meanwhile, made some interesting observations about technology and transparency, claiming that the current Government wants to establish a benchmark for transparency. It will be interesting to see how this plays out over the coming months and years.
Aside from the plenary sessions, a series of smaller workshops gave participants the chance to consider issues such as how technology can be used to improve the delivery of government services, increase community spirit, and reduce the rate of sexually transmitted infections among young people. The smaller sessions also offered participants an opportunity to consider issues raised in the plenaries such as if, and how, Britain’s nine million non-internet users can be convinced to pick up a mouse. Digital exclusion – whether forced or voluntary – remains a huge barrier to the vision of a truly networked nation.
Finally, the conference explored some of the reasons why the third sector in the UK has so far failed to seize the opportunities offered by the internet. According to a recent Nominet Trust report, 60% of UK charities were not using the internet effectively. Peter Wanless, Chief Executive of the Big Lottery Fund, said that funders had a role to play in this. Not only did he advocate paperless grant application systems, he also urged funders to provide support to charities wishing to develop their websites. At present, 50% of charities in the UK say they lack someone to talk to about their internet needs – an unacceptably and unnecessarily high figure.