Urgent action is required to make the internet accessible to everyone in Scotland, says Alan Alexander
It is easy to see why the internet has become such an important part of daily life: whether browsing the web for gifts, catching up with the news or keeping in touch with friends and family, being part of the digital realm makes getting by in our busy society that bit easier and faster.
The advantages of being digitally connected extend far beyond our domestic and social lives. More and more government agencies and local councils are now delivering core services online, just as colleges and universities are upping the number of courses available through internet learning.
Yet around one million Scots cannot use these services, often not through any infrastructure failing but through a lack of access. Furthermore, many of Scotland’s 113,000 small businesses are excluded from sharing in the benefits of our digital society, either by not being online at all or by failing to make effective use of digital tools.
These are just some of the conclusions of Spreading the Benefits of Digital Participation, an interim report recently published by the Royal Society of Edinburgh, which outlines the findings of a nationwide inquiry on how best to secure Scotland’s digital future.
Overcoming societal barriers has to be given top priority. The Scottish Government must assume overall accountability for ensuring that digital inclusion is available to every individual. If people remain offline, they may not have full access to opportunities for education and health, and for economic and social wellbeing.
To date, Government activity to address the issues has largely been focused on the need to install robust infrastructure across the nation, and on how this can be effectively delivered by Holyrood and Westminster in partnership with local authorities. Constructing new networks is an important part of what is needed, but this alone will not be enough to enable all of Scotland’s people and business to enjoy the benefits of the continuing digital revolution.
The Scottish Government must recognise that digital exclusion is closely linked to social deprivation. The cost of a broadband connection is a big obstacle for many people who remain offline. Many of Scotland’s most deprived areas have a low rate of broadband uptake. Even in Scotland’s most affluent neighbourhoods, more than 15 per cent of homes are not connected, many of which belong to elderly or disabled citizens who may already be isolated from society.
Urgent action is required to make the internet more affordable and accessible for everyone in Scotland. One way this can be done is by creating community internet hubs, for example in housing association schemes. Making more digital facilities currently located in public buildings (such as schools) available to the wider community would also help people to get online.
The Scottish Government should reconsider its digital aspirations. Scotland needs to draw on the example of her Nordic neighbours, namely Iceland, Sweden and Norway, where, despite rugged geographies and low population densities, broadband use and connectivity is above 90 per cent. Some areas of Scotland already come close to these levels, so why not achieve them for all?
The more people who have the opportunity to participate digitally, the greater the benefit is for us all. This is known as the “network effect”, whereby localised digital activity by communities of individuals, businesses and voluntary organisations helps motivate others to become involved. Enabling this to take place, however, requires resources from community organisations to make it possible to lend equipment and teach skills to digital newcomers.
An inclusive digital Scotland will have to harness the technical skills and scientific understanding needed to create digital tools and content, and use them effectively in all walks of life. To achieve this, the Scottish Government must ensure that the education system, from pre-school to primary through to secondary and tertiary, is properly equipped to provide the necessary education and training in digital literacy and computer science.
Beyond improving access, encouraging participation and developing skills, Scotland must also address wider issues around digital safety, such as privacy, identity and regulation. Governments must recognise that it has new responsibilities around digital safety and legislate accordingly to protect people from becoming victims of online crime.
The Royal Society of Edinburgh encourages anyone with an interest in Scotland’s digital future to read the interim report, which is available on our website and send their feedback to help shape the final report, which is due in early 2014.
• Alan Alexander is co-chair, Royal Society of Edinburgh Digital Scotland Working Group