5.7 million households do not have an internet connection

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Libraries can help address digital inequality (image c/o splorp on Flickr)

Yesterday the Office of National Statistics released its latest Internet access – households and individuals report.  Once again it demonstrated something that is often overlooked, there is a sizeable proportion of the population that do not have an internet connection.  According to the statistics, although the percentage of households with an internet connection has grown to 77% (up 4% on last year), there are still an amazing 5.7 million households in the UK without internet access.  Other top line statistics from the report:

  • 45 per cent of Internet users used a mobile phone to connect to the Internet
  • 6 million people accessed the Internet over their mobile phone for the first time in the previous 12 months
  • The use of wireless hotspots almost doubled in the last 12 months to 4.9 million users
  • 21 per cent of Internet users did not believe their skills were sufficient to protect their personal data
  • 77 per cent of households had Internet access
  • 50% of those without internet say they do not need it
  • 40% say that the equipment is too expensive or they do not believe they have the skills required

…many children are being left behind

The last three points are particularly crucial.  Households without internet would mean, in many cases, families without internet connections.  This is particularly concerning as it has been demonstrated that children’s performance at school can be affected by their inability to make use of an internet connection.  Whilst the report doesn’t provide statistics on family households without internet access, it is not beyond reason to conclude that there are a great many families included within that 5.7 million households figure.  And, consequently, a great many children who are potentially being left behind by their ‘connected’ peers.  The consequences of this disparity are fairly clear.

The final two points are also concerning and provide a stark reminder of what damage would be done by large-scale library closures.  Libraries can play a massive role in addressing these issues.  Trained, professional library staff can help to support inexperienced users to find their way around the internet and gain the confidence to take full advantage of what it offers.  It has been demonstrated in repeated studies that people using the internet are economically better off (££) and, at a time of such economic difficulty, this is more important now than ever.

…public libraries are crucial to reducing digital inequality

Furthermore, the provision of free internet access in public libraries is absolutely crucial to reducing digital inequality and ensuring that a sizeable proportion of the population are not left behind.  Close public libraries and remove the only point of free internet access and you create a society of digitally excluded, those left to flounder as they do not have the finances or skills to keep up with the digitally advanced.  It is not enough to simply provide these people with computers and hope that will resolve the inequality.  Who will provide the support and the training?  Public libraries are still the best way to ensure that the digital revolution does not further isolate the disadvantaged from society and ensure that no-one is left behind.

One further point on this issue that perhaps ought to be made, in terms of libraries/librarians themselves rather than the people who use them.  It is worth noting that neither the Guardian or the BBC made any reference to public libraries offering free internet access, nor did they mention the impact library closures could have on those that are digitally excluded.  You may argue that the point isn’t directly relevant to those particular articles.  Maybe not.  However, it is worth remembering that although there have been plenty of positive shifts in the coverage of libraries in the past year, commentators still do not see libraries as a solution to modern-day problems.  For library advocacy to have any real success, this has to change.  Because if people of influence cannot see the role libraries can and should play in addressing contemporary concerns, there is little hope for the future of the library service and the profession.

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Turning blogs into apps

There’s been a lot of interesting chatter on the interwebs the past couple of days about a new application for the iPhone that enables you to create an app for your website. Seeing as Ned has already provided an outline of what it does, I won’t writing something detailing the ins and outs.  However, if you are intrigued to know more, Ned summarises it as follows (it is a handy post if you do want to give it a whirl):

The way Bloapp works is that you download the Bloapp app, and then subscribe to blogs within it that have been ‘apped’. (That’s not a real word, I just invented it; I mean registered with bloapp, basically). A bit like the Stitcher radio app works. So, you can download the Bloapp app from iTunes here, and then you can subscribe to this blog either by searching for thewikiman or, more excitingly, scanning this QR code within the app itself! (By the way, if you scan this QR code outside of the app itself, it just takes you to the normal mobile version of this blog).

As someone who plays around with a lot of web tools for Voices for the Library (and someone who is keen to encourage the whole ‘go on, give it a try’ ethos), I always have a bit of interest in the latest developments and try to find ways to use them to the campaign’s advantage, so naturally I was intrigued.

However, whilst I think this is an interesting tool, I’m not sure it really adds anything.  Admittedly, I do use a variety of website type apps on my iPhone (the BBC and Guardian apps to name two) and whilst they are quite good, they are not really satisfactory for seeking out news stories.  The free version of the Guardian app doesn’t allow search which is a real pain in the backside (guess I should upgrade really!) and you can’t even search the BBC app whatsoever (I really don’t like the BBC app, it could be so much better).  And that’s before we get into the whole closed web nature of apps *shiver* (although I guess this issue isn’t really relevant to this particular development to be fair).  Perhaps there is a search functionality on the app so I guess these are kinda moot points.  But, in general, whilst I sometimes use apps as my first point of call, I usually use the browser to poke around (old skool).

That said, I’m not sure of the other advantages.  I’ve bookmarked my blog on  my phone so I can access it quickly and easily.  The mobile version of my blog is also in-keeping with the style of my website so I don’t feel I am missing out on anything there either:

Mobile version of my blog

I can also share blog posts on Twitter/Facebook etc from the site so that’s not really an issue either (but then I think most mobile sites allow that don’t they??).  I know the pointed has been made about the decline in RSS, so I guess this is something where it may have some strengths.  But, well, I am in the unconvinced camp…

This does not mean, however, that I am against libraries making use of apps, quite the opposite (and as I have said before I am all for experimentation – I work on a ‘give it a try if it doesn’t work learn from it’ perspective).  In fact, I am in the process of putting together an event which touches on how apps can be used by libraries (more on that at a later date when things are finalised).  For me, apps should take full advantage of a smartphones capabilities.  As Chad at Hidden Peanuts points out:

Apps only make sense when they provide something above and beyond what a webapp can do. Do you need to use a device’s camera or accelerometer? Do you need offline access? Then an app is your thing. A blog doesn’t benefit from any of those doodads.

That quote is worth including alone for the use of the word ‘doodads’.

I will definitely keep an eye on developments and, should it emerge that there is something I have overlooked or there are some interesting developments, I may well give it a try and Bloapp the Voices website.  Until then, much as it pains me to say it, the jury is out.

Libraries must be the future – for the good of democracy

Is two tier information access inevitable? Image c/o Julian Sebastian on Flickr

If there is one thing you can rely on when reading an online article about libraries, it is that someone will suggest that the internet has made libraries and, by extension, librarians, irrelevant.  It is not just amateur commentators though even representatives from established think tanks perpetuate this belief.  The fact that 9 million people have never even accessed the internet is a minor inconvenience.  But still this belief persists.  Ironically (given that librarians are considered ‘past it’) it is those that utilise these arguments who are behind the curve and refuse to recognise the very nature of the internet.

The argument used by the ‘internet trumps libraries’ brigade relies on something that we know full well is not representative of the internet we have all grown to love (and hate?).  Since the mid-90s, the internet has frequently changed.  The internet of today is quite different from that preceding the dotcom crash.   It is not a static medium.  Who would have thought just 5 years ago that a large proportion of the population would be happy to share their personal details freely and openly?

…the internet is not static and is subject to change.

The assumption made by many when discussing library closures is that the internet will remain static, forever acting as a source of free and open information.  But, of course, the internet is not static and is subject to change.  And who is the biggest driver of this change?  Corporations.  Unfortunately for the corporate world the level of competition on the internet is inhibiting their ability to make profit.  However, moves are afoot to change this, shifting the balance of power from the individual to corporations.

Take the issue of net neutrality for example.  Ed Vaizey has been less than enthusiastic in his support of net neutrality.  In a speech delivered towards the end of last year, Vaizey stated that:

“Content and service providers should have the ability to innovate and, most importantly, to reach end users … This could include the evolution of a two-sided market where consumers and content providers could choose to pay for differing levels of quality of service.”

The implication being that the government envisages a two-tier internet, with all the inequality that goes with it (he later claimed that this wasn’t the case). The implications for the digital divide could not be more stark.  As Tim Berners-Lee has warned:

“Control of information is hugely powerful. In the US, the threat is that companies control what I can access for commercial reasons. (In China, control is by the government for political reasons.) There is a very strong short-term incentive for a company to grab control of TV distribution over the internet even though it is against the long-term interests of the industry.”

Abandoning net neutrality could lead to a shift in the control of information.  At present the flow of information is neither controlled by the state or by corporate interests – it moves freely enabling equal access for all. The removal of ‘net neutrality’ would change this, leading to corporations controlling access to information.

“…we are on the slippery slope towards a much more controlled, less open, internet.”

However, it is not just net neutrality that should concern us.  The Guardian recently reported that the growth of smartphones also poses a danger to the freely accessible internet that we know today.  In an article subtitled ‘The proliferation of powerful mobile phones could see control of the internet pass into the hands of corporations’, John Naughton comments that:

“…we are on the slippery slope towards a much more controlled, less open, internet. If these trends continue, then it won’t be all that long before a significant proportion of the world’s internet users will access the network, not via freely programmable PCs connected via landline networks, but through tethered, non-programmable information appliances (smartphones) hooked up to tightly controlled and regulated mobile networks.”

The root cause of this problem is the established belief that information is a commodity that can be bought and sold, a vital cog in the economic machine.  The growth of the internet has provided business with a wealth of opportunities, many of which remain untapped.  For the libertarians, commodities are best placed in the hands of corporations who can utilise them to their advantage and grow the economy, turning a blind eye to its potential impact on society.  As Anne Goulding noted ten years ago (£):

“The danger is that governments, supported by business and industry, will place a higher priority on the development of ICTs to support economic productivity than on assisting social cohesion and progress.”

This leaves us in a perilous state if our public libraries are destroyed.  Libraries do not discriminate when providing access to information.  You do not have to be rich to take advantage of the wealth of information that the library provides.  Likewise, you do not have to be wealthy to consult a librarian and ensure you gain access to the very best information available.  This is the danger in believing the internet will remain static and unchanging forever.  The internet is a mechanism for corporations to make money, whereas for libraries it is a tool to enhance the social, political and cultural life of society.

In 1998, Noam Chomsky, in an interview for CorpWatch on Microsoft and corporate control of the internet, argued:

“If you really know exactly what you want to find, and have enough information and energy, you may be able to find what you want. But they want to make that as difficult as possible. And that’s perfectly natural. If you were on the board of directors of Microsoft, sure, that’s what you’d try to do.”

Libraries and librarians are here to make that process as easy as possible.  When we suddenly find ourselves in a world of paywalls and divided access, will we look back in shame at what we cast aside because of a failure to understand the nature of technology?

The decline of Murdoch – a good thing for the flow of information?

Rupert Murdoch

Will the decline of the Murdoch empire have an impact on paywalls? Image c/o DonkeyHotey on Flickr

The past couple of weeks have been pretty momentous in the worlds of media and politics.  The revelations about the hacking of Milly Dowler’s mobile phone (falsely raising the hopes of both family and friends) have marked a new low in the history of the British press. Whilst the antics of the tabloid press should surprise no-one, a widespread sense of shock and disbelief at the depths that they would sink has engulfed the general public.  At the heart of this developing scandal lies News Corporation and Rupert Murdoch.  Already withdrawing their attempt to takeover BSkyB, could we be witnessing the slow, public death of one of the largest and most powerful news organisations in the world?  If so, could this have ramifications for accessibility to online information?

“The current days of the internet will soon be over.”

It is widely acknowledged that Murdoch doesn’t really ‘get’ the internet. Over the course of the past year, News Corporation has made moves to place their newspaper websites behind paywalls.  As The Guardian reported back in 2009, Murdoch envisaged a great change in the way information was accessed online:

Asked whether he envisaged fees at his British papers such as The Times, The Sunday Times, The Sun and the News of the World, he replied: “We’re absolutely looking at that.” Taking questions on a conference call with reporters and analysts, he said that moves could begin “within the next 12 months‚” adding: “The current days of the internet will soon be over.”

Such moves were cause for great concern.  Many libraries provide access to newspapers for free and, with declining budgets, it raised the question: should libraries subscribe to online newspaper content for their users?  But it also raised a greater and more important question.  If information is increasingly to be found behind paywalls in a time when libraries are faced with closure, how will we ensure equal access to information for all?  As we know (and as I repeatedly refer back to on this very blog!), 9 million people in this country have never even used the Internet.  The combination of their library closing and a wealth of information being kept behind paywalls would surely entrench the digital divide yet further – ensuring that a substantial proportion of the population never have access to the amount of information that the rest of us take for granted.

The initial impact of the paywall was stark.  Shortly after The Times paywall went up, The Guardian reported a 90% decline in visits.  People had become used to accessing information freely, without recourse to their debit or credit card.  And where one organisation leads, others follow.  The New York Times has suffered a 15% decline in visits since it also launched a paywall.  Whilst not a substantial decline, it is a decline nonetheless and an indication that people will turn away from paywalled content and access their information from elsewhere (which perhaps explains News Corporation’s repeated attacks on the BBC – the largest provider of free news content in the country).

But, with the foundations of the Murdoch media empire seemingly crumbling before our eyes, could this have implications for paywalled newspaper content?  Should Murdoch give up his stake in his remaining newspapers, would a new owner turn their backs on paywalled content?  Or has News Corporation set the Internet on an irreversible path?  I fear it may be the latter, but I remain hopeful that it is the former.

A life switched off (well, two weeks anyway)

Switched off. Image c/o sevestjude on Flickr

Ok, it has only been a few days but being without internet access really does suck.  It is quite unbelievable that in this day and age it can take so long to get re-connected after moving house.  Apparently, once my phoneline is reconnected, it will take around 10 days to have my internet connection back up and running.  My only connection, therefore, will be whilst I am at work.  Not ideal but at least it is better than nothing.

It is amazing how much you miss though during such a prolonged period of outage.  Ok, it is not like I am without food or water, and this is very much a first world problem nothing dramatic or arduous, but it is weird nonetheless.  And to think, nine million people out there have never even used the internet.  Nine million.  Imagine where those nine million people would be without their local public library to support them (yep, I always like to slip that one in!).

Anyway, hopefully I will be back up soon.  Surely things won’t have changed that much in the meantime…

Going unplugged

Disconnected. Image c/o The Hamster Factor on Flickr

Yep, the big house move is just a week away now…from now until next Friday there will be a steady rise in my stress levels.  Luckily for you, dear reader, you will probably not bear witness to this very public breakdown.  Sadly for me (but wonderful for you), I will probably not be online for very much for at least a week.  This is mainly because I am going to be far too busy shifting my junk around to have the time to sit down and blog/tweet/facebook/(Google+??!).  It’s also because, unfortunately, when I will have the time to sit down I probably won’t be able to do anything anyway.  Where I live we have no 3G connection and I have discovered it will take ten days (yes, TEN) to get our broadband re-connected.  So if I don’t respond to tweets/blog comments etc, I am not ignoring you, I’m just not able to respond.  Basically, if you don’t see any sign of me I haven’t disappeared, just disconnected.  It’s gonna be weird.  How will I cope without an internet connection?  My guess? Badly.

UN declares: “Internet access is a human right”

Access to the flow of online information is a right say the UN (image c/o Nrbelex)

Just over a week ago the United Nations underlined the right for everyone to have access to a resource that many take for granted: the internet.  As I have often commented on this blog over the years, lack of Internet access is not simply restricted to those that live in developing countries.  Nine million people in this country have never even accessed the internet, either at home or elsewhere.  From the Los Angeles Times:

“Given that the Internet has become an indispensable tool for realizing a range of human rights, combating inequality, and accelerating development and human progress, ensuring universal access to the Internet should be a priority for all states,” said the report from Frank La Rue, a special rapporteur to the United Nations, who wrote the document “on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression.”

Obviously, putting access to information on the same footing as water is a significant and welcome move.  Access to information is absolutely vital for the wellbeing and prosperity of all individuals.  One wonders, however, what councils across the UK make of this development.

For many across the UK, a public library is the only place they can connect to the internet.  In the North East alone, connectivity stands at only 59% of households.  Closing libraries in areas such as the North East will surely result in access to the internet being cut off for many.  In essence, by closing public libraries, councils across the country will be violating tax payers’ human rights, according to the United Nations at least.  Is this likely to force them to change their minds about the extent of the closures?  Probably not.  Having said that, it may well be worth writing to your councillor and including a link to the text of the report.  You never know, it might just prick their conscience.