In 2007, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown abolished the position of Minister for Social Exclusion. In early 2008, a post of Minister of Digital Inclusion was created
In 2009, UK government appointed a female entrepreneur as a Digital Inclusion Champion, to head a two year campaign for making the country ‘tech savvy’
In 2010 a Digital Public Services Unit was set up within the Cabinet Office
If you’re living in Birmingham and concerned with digital life, you’d had been busy last week, participating in a bunch of events, such as: Hello Digital, Hello Business and Get Online. This year Birmingham is celebrating itself as a Digital City.
But what does the term of Digital City mean?’ wondered Tim Manson (From Marketing Birmingham) in Hello Digital:
Perhaps a city can only be truly digital when it works to ensure that everyone benefits from technologies…or may be a city that have a world-class universities working to advance digital technologies through new researches…can a city call itself digital when it delivers a super- fast communication technology to support all businesses . I can think of only one city that has all of this
Birmingham seems eligible to be called ‘Digital’, as has quite a strong presence on the web; online you find Digital Birmingham, Virtual Birmingham and Birmingham Online, which are different projects!
The local government here has been generously supporting a list of projects for digitalizing the city. This happens for two reasons, first: it’s a government policy to make the UK the first nation in the world where everyone can use the internet, so Birmingham and all cities should join this race, which has 2012 as a deadline. Second: Brum is like many local authorities facing substantial cuts in their finances in the next few years, therefore using technology for delivering services with lower costs is becoming crucial, as BBC Deputy Leader Paul Tilsley affirms.
I attended some sessions in both Hello Digital and Hello Business, prior to this, I was reading Power of Information (POI) report, which is an independent review by Ed Mayo and Tom Steinberg, it was released in 2007 to show the benefits UK government would earn if used it made its information available online.
POI includes precious recommendations to the government on networking and going in partnerships with user generated websites, to make the official data available, to bridge the digital divide and to enhance the building of online communities . The key message of the report is that information is more powerful when it’s available to public, who can reuse it innovatively, mash it and generate services government was never to think about or to help authorities evaluate and plan their standing services.
The government responded to this independent review and accepted almost all of its recommendations. Though, Hillary Armstrong, minister of Cabinet Office in this time started the official reply with confirming that:
Government is not going to be expert at this overnight, we need to experiment and learn
The talks of high profile speakers in Hello Digital give an overview to how far Birmingham is applying POI’s recommendations. A big achievement is the release of Open Government Data license last week, which is a tool to enable Information Providers in the public sector to license the use and re-use of their Information, that’s exactly the key recommendation of the POI report!
Now the government is making over 4,000 of its databases available online with no cost, and more data to be added as Nigel Shadbolt told us in Hello Digital.
Having this huge number of databases is definitely positive, but not enough for digitalizing a city, POI report recommends that Cabinet Office Property and Ethics and Government Communications teams should clarify how civil servants should respond to citizens seeking advice online. This sound to be happening in a national scale,Twitter as an example for a tool with fast growing popularity, we find it became an ‘official’ communication channel for central government departments, as its use was regulated by a comprehensive guide last year.
Some UK cities have their civil servants using Twitter impressively, such as Manchester Police, which tweet on community policing, crime prevention, community safety, police jobs and reports, it even tweet the coming calls to its helpline. Meanwhile, West Midlands Police’s Twitter account has been updated automatically, and instead of looking to Twitter as a ‘social’ network, WM civil servants apologizes for more than 3,000 followers for not replying inquires online.
The surprising thing is that despite all its partnerships for digitalizing life, Birmingham City Council, doesn’t have a Twitter account, or at least doesn’t announce on its website having one, whereas there is an account claims being a City Council’s new publisher on Twitter, but unfortunately was not updated since 8th January!
While checking some of the local authorities’ efforts for taking the city to the digital world, I got a sense that City Council has a determination of putting Birmingham in the forefront of digital cities, even if it will flood the netizens with projects and services, yet some of them are not ‘digital’ enough, it’s like making a big table of well-smell food, but have some of them not cooked enough!
An example on this could be the homeless people, as POI recommends empowering the socially excluded people who have internet access to promote their social inclusion using the kinds of online ICT. We find homeless individuals who use the internet are unable to get advice from City Council, unable to arrange an appointment online either, I think it’s not ‘digital’ enough to just put the email, phone number and post address online. Meanwhile, if an application for any of the provided services by the council was refused, the user can request a review using an internet based wizard!
On the same time, there are a number of websites offering more help to homelesses in the UK, such as The Site, which explains clearly local council’s procedures for a homeless registration, alongside immediate advice s by phone.
Unfortunately City Council doesn’t link to such website, networking with user generated websites was one of OPI’s recommendations, to some extend this is happening, NHS West Midlands, for example, has a big list of healthcare websites, it even checked the quality of their information, and those which were not checked, are also listed.
Because UK has a challenge of making its people online by 2012, it’s fundamental to help those who don’t get online to explore the digital life, over this week Get Online is doing this, and all year long , the good number of Online Centers in Birmingham is taking people digital.
Another recommendation of POI of paying attention to the digital inclusion is getting realized, either through these centers, or by encouraging children, who often are internet users to teach their parents using computers.
However engaging Brums online is usually accompanied with a tone of ‘going online for the city’s good’, just check out Digital Family project, to watch the popular historian Carl Chinn asking people to get involved in the digital age, explaining that Birmingham in 2010 should be one of the leading cities recipients of digital revolution “why? Because in 18 century Birmingham lead the world industrial revolution, which made it a great city, and it should still a great city…” as he is saying.
The same tone is used in the national project Race Online 2012 who stimulate people to ‘make the UK the first nation in the world where everyone can use the web’.
I think people should be more motivated to enter the digital age if they were convinced it’s for their own good. Individual’s good was considered the definition of digital inclusion by Lord Carter, Minister for Communications, Technology and Broadcasting when he appointed the Champion for Digital Inclusion, Martha Lane Fox last year.