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Martha Lane Fox: ‘Views from a dot com dinosaur: why the digital disruption hasn’t even started yet’

16th November 2010

Martha Lane Fox, the government’s Digital Inclusion Champion, delivered the ninth annual Longford Lecture on the e-revolution and social exclusion Church House, Westminster Tuesday November 16, 2010.


“One of the things that I have always thought was quite neat about working in technology is that you feel very young, and quite cool with it. Technology is all about the new, the young people, and therefore you must be one of them.  So it was a bit of a shock when, at a conference earlier this year, another young person said to me, “Oh, yes, I know who you are, you’re that dot.com dinosaur”.  It felt a long way away from when Brent and I, the co-founders of lastminute.com, were in our first business meeting  with our first venture capitalists. They looked over their horn-rimmed spectacles at our business plan, at me aged 25, and at him at not much older.  And from behind their big mahogany desk, they didn’t ask one single thing except to me, “What happens if you get pregnant?”

Times have changed.  We are living in exponential times, someone said to me the other day, and I was thinking about that and it’s true.  So I’m going to share some exponential-sounding numbers with you.  In case you hadn’t noticed, every single industry and every single activity is being disrupted by technology.  40% of all news that’s consumed is now online.  If you fancy a bit more of this evening’s multimedia compère [Jon Snow], you can see his blog, you can follow him on Twitter, as well as watch him on the broadcast television.  You can see pictures of Chilean miners as they are brought up, live, streamed on the internet. You can read peoples’ comments as a leader freed after 25 years walks out into the sunshine, hear about things before they even happen, certainly before newspapers are able to publish the next day.   And who can forget the images of brave ‘Neda’ when she was brutally murdered in Iran last year that sent a whole range of extraordinary images flying round the blogosphere.

It’s not just news.  Information has gone into overload.  A data tsunami is upon us.   In 2006, there were 2.7 billion searches on all of the search tools there are on the web.  Here in 2010, there will be 31 billion searches in Google alone.  I found a site the other day called worldometers.info it’s my new favourite site, and it tells me that while I talk to you this evening 2,500 babies will have been born.

And when we turn to business, I profited endlessly both personally and professionally from the extraordinary rollercoaster that was lastminute.com, but business has changed irrevocably due to the advent of technology.  you.gov did a poll last week and seven out of ten of the top brands in the world, as trusted and respected and listened to by consumers, are now technology companies.  Five of them didn’t even exist ten years ago.

The business of just getting people onto the internet, the connections part, is worth £100 billion a year.  One billion of us are registered to play virtual games.  And they are not all blowing people up, a world at war. One of the biggest games in this country, and with 80 million users worldwide, is FarmVille.  You grow your own vegetables, you sell them, you have your own little patch, and you can do it on Facebook or other social networks.  Perhaps even more hilariously, I discovered, and I’ve added it on to the end of my incredible exponential facts, one in eight people in the US married last year met online.

UK success story

So the world has changed, no big surprises there, but perhaps the biggest surprise is the role here of the UK.  The UK is actually quite a success story.  We are the number one e-commerce country in the world.  We have the highest percentage of our sales coming from e-commerce transactions.  I’d love lastminute.com to have been a key factor in this, but I think it’s not just our fault.  In fact, when I think back to the early days when we spent six months pretty much on back-to-back ‘phone calls with airlines, hotels, tour operators, convincing them that the internet wasn’t going to blow up, it seems strange that I can even say with such a straight face that 10 percent of our retail world is now online.  The politest response that we used to get was “go away” before they put the ‘phone down. Fifty percent of all travel is now booked online in the UK.  Eight million of us found jobs online last year.  Seven million of us have bought or sold something on e-bay.  23 million have a registered account on Facebook, four million on Twitter.  Even the Queen last week finally set up her own Facebook group.  As a staunch republican, she is the one person I wasn’t actually trying to connect but it seems as though she did anyway.

Google did some work to show that, just to the UK, the entirety of the internet world is now worth about £100 billion.  £3.3 billion of that comes from the games and the creative industries where we really do lead the world.  But we don’t just lead the world commercially.  Our government last year actually took some very bold steps prompted by my own personal hero, Tim Berners-Lee, next to whom, whenever I am standing by him, I always go bright red and feel very embarrassed.  They opened up all of the data that government has, and slowly, department by department, all of the interesting information that they hold, our information, is being put out online. That’s important because it is starting to ask questions of what we have as data stores for our government and for its decisions.

And it is data that people can use to do interesting things with.  I’ll give you two very different two examples.  The most popular downloaded free application onto an iPhone for a whole two weeks last year was the asbometer.  The asbometer was created by a plucky individual developer who took crime data and mapped it so that you could look up your local area and see how many crimes had been committed there.  Clearly there was demand for that somewhere.

At the other end of the spectrum, last week a new application was created by another developer using information about the air quality in London so that people who struggle with asthma or other respiratory diseases could work out which bits of London were safer to breathe in. Two very different things, but all coming from the government’s release of data.

So the UK does pretty well.  In 2007 we had just 62% of us able to use the internet with broadband connections.  Now, that’s a staggering 82.5%.  We actually lead the world in terms of broadband connections.

But – and it’s a big “but” for me – there are nine million people in this country who have never used the internet.  More than that, there are up to – and it’s hard to pin this number down – there are another five million who have been online once and never gone back to it, or have access at work and don’t use it regularly. That to me is a very serious number.

The nine million breaks down into some interesting statistics and shows, I believe, that we are creating not just a digital divide, but also a very deep social one.  Of that nine million, four million fall into three or more of the multiple deprivation indices.  Thirty percent of people who have never been online live on under £10,000 a year.  Of that four million of the nine million, 39% are over 65, 38% are unemployed, and 19% are families with children.

Moral imperative

There’s a big north-south gap as well.  The biggest area of digital exclusion is also the most economically disadvantaged – areas of the north-east of England, around Liverpool and on the coast.  Seventy percent of people who live in social housing have never been online. It’s hard to pin down but we have been trying my team to find out the amount of people who have never been online who are in care.  Let alone the 80,000 people in prison who certainly don’t have access.

People always say, “Oh, it’s just a problem of people who are over 65”, but I hope I’ve shown you it isn’t.  It’s a very deep social exclusion issue.  And in that data tsunami and all those things that are changing, I think it is a very important moral imperative that we make sure no one gets left behind.

Why?  Why does it really matter?  Well, there are both individual and UK plc benefits.  To the individual, it’s now absolute fact that your chances to get a job, your confidence, and what you will earn when you are in that job, all increase if you are online.  You would be 25% more likely to get employment if you are unemployed if you have web skills. When you do get a job, you’ll earn 10% more.  If you are online your feelings of loneliness go down by 80%, and your feelings of confidence increase by 60%.

I’ve seen this again and again and have been lucky enough to visit millions of projects now all over the country where people are learning how to use the internet for the first time.  I met a fabulous young woman called Emilyn who we actually put on our taskforce, a taskforce of champions who go round telling politicians and other people in business how the internet has changed their lives.  Emilyn was homeless and living in a shelter, she had very severe mental health problems, and she would say the internet literally turned her life around.  Now she is studying for a psychology degree and she’s got her own flat.

Dead without the internet

I met a young man in Leeds called Darryl.  Darryl’s story really took my breath away, partly, I think, because I’m often guilty of screeching at the top of my voice, “I just can’t live without my I-phone” and my poor assistant (who is here this evening) is frequently being harassed about what’s happened to my various bits of technology, where I’ve left them and so on.  But Darryl looked at me on a rainy afternoon in Leeds and said, “I’d be dead without the internet”.  And I thought, “Wow, that’s a really strong expression, really dead?”  He said, “I was found in a bus shelter, smacked out of my brain, I was taken to a hostel, recovered for a couple of weeks, and then I saw a notice on the wall, a notice that said I could learn how to make music online.  I went to the centre and started to get engaged”.  And it was in that centre that I’d met him and every day he’d been coming for the last few months, and over time he’d relearned new skills, he’d learned how to do some deejaying online and, more importantly, to sell small amounts of his music.

He played me some.  It’s an absolute miracle anyone was buying his music but they were and he was happy with it.  He was not making huge amounts of money, but certainly enough for pocket money.  And Darryl was now training people like him who felt that their lives were really very much on the edge what was possible, and showing them that by engaging with this phenomenal tool they could get back into what they were interested in, on their terms.  There are many, many examples of people all over the place who’ve had these incredible experiences.

False choice

But it’s not just the individual that benefits.  I believe we all benefit when more people are online.  There are the numbers to back this up.  A recent survey showed that if each country increases its broadband penetration by ten percent, then it tends to get a 1% kick on its GDP – quite significant.  We did some work last year with PWC to show that the value to the UK as a whole of all the people that are offline is £22 billion and that breaks down both as benefits to the individual and benefits to the government in being able to move from offline to online electronic communication with those groups.  No surprises that the nine million people who are not on the internet are also the heaviest users of government services.

And I now believe that government is giving these individuals a false choice.  By continuing to talk to the most needy and on the lowest incomes and the most disadvantaged by paper form, or by getting them to telephone, or by imploring them to come to a centre, I believe it is as basic as denying them how to learn to read, and that applies to anybody anywhere.

So what can we do about it?  Well, I am a very simplistic person, and much more so now my brain is shrunk from morphine, so I believe that there are three main areas that can help radically address this issue.  They fall around (1) inspiring people, (2) supporting people, and (3) encouraging people.

The inspiration part is clear.  It works on two levels.  People who are not online already clearly haven’t seen the benefit to them, as the 30 million of us who use the internet every day have , and it seems to me that it falls to a person like the individual showing them what’s great about being online and then encouraging them to get online.

The team and I who work on this were in Bridlington in north east Yorkshire two weeks ago. It was ‘Get Online Week’, and in a moment of madness I thought we should go to one of the areas of the country that is most digitally excluded and see for ourselves why people weren’t online.  I wasn’t one of the people standing outside in the rain encouraging people to come and test the internet – who, as you can imagine, got some quite fruity responses when they suggested that people would like to try how to use the web. I was sitting in a library where Age UK had set up a pop-up training facility and there they were showing older people for the first time the wonders of what was online.

I sat down with a man of probably about 75, and, as I believe you should, said to him, “What do you love, what interests you, what do you like doing at the weekends?”, trying to find something that I could hook his interest on. He just looked at me and said, “I’m lonely”. Okay, and then I said, “Right, we’ll find the local Bridlington ladies”.  So we did a search, and you could see his interest was piqued when we started seeing the results tumbling down on the screen. He could see that there were ladies, other ladies, in Bridlington, than the ones he knew, the ones he’d seen at church, the ones that he’d seen in the shop, who also were lonely and wanted to talk.  He didn’t have to meet them, could just have a chat, could email, could make friends. And as I showed him this screen, a tear fell down his cheek. It was quite a humbling moment.  So you just have to find that moment of inspiration.  I knew he was hooked after that.  I can’t take responsibility for what happened afterwards, though, I hasten to add.

Shouting at buses

So inspiration is key. I’m frequently walking down Regent Street on my way to the office shouting at buses, as people passing by might tell you, because it angers me when I see things flying past saying, “Free broadband, connect online”, which means absolutely bugger all if you don’t know what the internet is, or what broadband is.  So we’re working with a lot of companies to try and change some those messages to make them much more benefits-related.  Inspiration is a big part of it.

The second part is around support and making sure that, even if you can’t have a computer in your own home, which would be a fabulous nirvana but not a realistic one, you know where you can get help and it’s easy and safe to do so.  And this is where we must absolutely not forget the prison population.  As I say, there are nine million people who have never been online, and there are under 100,000 people who are in prison.  I am not able to actively lobby government as much as I personally might think it’s a good idea, but I absolutely do believe that denying anybody, including prisoners, the right to get online is very short-sighted and there are many ways of supporting people, through trusted intermediaries, or through closed groups for example.  Just as children have restricted internet access, and their parents can monitor it, it is possible also for prisoners to have the same.

But on a broader scale we also worked out that there is about half a billion pounds’ worth of computer technology that gets locked up overnight every day in our communities, in schools, in GPs’ surgeries, in libraries, in UK Online Centres, the network of computer training places that the government started.  If we could join that up better, then there are many access points that many people would be able to use to be able to get online.

So inspiring is important, support is important.  And finally, encouragement.  And this, I think, takes two forms, both carrot and stick.  Carrot is certainly more incentives and more smarter ways of doing things.  Better deals if you introduce people for the first time online, and more rewards if you do so, but I also think – and this is what I’ve been working closely with the new coalition government on –  the government needs to take a lead in making sure that all citizens have those skills which now are as basic as reading. To do so, I think it needs to be a leader in thinking about the internet as part of its delivery of public services.

Technology and social change

So we formed the Race Online campaign.  We’re a partnership programme, and we’ve encouraged all kinds of different organisations, both public and private, to make commitments to help get people online.  We’ve got big companies like TalkTalk, McDonalds, Sky, Comet.   We’ve got small, tiny ones like Puddletown Library, Dorset, who have committed to getting ten people online before the end of the year.  We’ve got lots of community organisations and many, many different individuals who have said they will help pass their IT skills on. But we need the help of the charitable sector and, more broadly than that, as certainly not an expert but as an observer from afar for some years and more recently in a bit more detail, I think that as much as the UK is a digital leader, in many ways we still have an opportunity to build on those successes and create a real leadership position in how we think about technology and social change.

It‘s still very hard as a small charity to get funding for technical projects.  I started a tiny grant-giving foundation, just with my own money, called Antigone and we are trying to focus on technology and charities. The amount of charities that came to us to say that it’s impossible to get funding to start a website, it’s impossible to get funding to buy a piece of technology, it’s impossible to get funding to even get technology that would allow us to leave the office like a Blackberry or a Smartphone.  This has to change.  We have to help bring these charities into the 21st century and beyond.

Examples of projects that are really using technology at their core are still too scarce and too few to be found.  I have a couple of examples but I thought I’d share with you something that I think about a lot.  I saw Eric Schmidt who runs Google speak recently. He talks often about the notion of ‘Internet First’ and argues that any organisation that doesn’t think ‘Internet First’ just will not survive, that we now live in an age that if you were designing things for now from scratch you’d think the ‘Internet First’.  And I challenge charities and, crucially, funders to also think ‘Internet First’.

It really struck me when I visited a project in Bristol.  It was one of the first places I visited a year ago. It’s called Knowle West.  Knowle West is a ward of Bristol that has one of the worst education records in the country, and the week before I went they had also stopped the buses into the area so this was a place that was excluded in every sense of the word.  And they were taking me to see a media centre that had recently been built.  And I was thinking on the train, “Really?  A media centre?  Is that what Knowle West needs?”  I couldn’t have been more wrong.  They definitely had thought ‘Internet First’.

A plucky local social entrepreneur had teamed up with the council and got some funding and had opened a beautiful shiny centre in the middle of a small disused park that was training people in how to build all sorts of different things online, how to build websites, how to use digital cameras.  One of the projects that really struck me had been started by a local resident who had kind of got involved in what was going on and thought “I can come up with a project and I thought, you know what?  I’m sick of how incredibly dirty all the gardens are in this area, it’s just unacceptable that people throw away their fridges, their old prams, just discard everything into the front of their gardens”.  So she came up with a smart idea, she came up with a gardening project, except she disguised it.  To the older people who she got involved, she said, “I want you to teach the younger generation how to grow carrots and vegetables on the green plots around the estate”.  To the younger people who got involved, she said, “I want you to teach multimedia, I want you to show the older people how to build websites and what this whole thing is with the internet”.

Cutting crime

Both sides were happy and an extraordinary thing started to happen.  Gardens got cleared, vegetables got planted.  The younger people were learning how to grow carrots. Some of them had never even seen something coming out of the ground before that you could eat. And the older people were beginning to be engaged with seeing the project develop on the website that they built.  Now they have an extraordinarily successful and vibrant site that sells vegetables to the local community and guess what the by-product is?  Crime has gone down in the area too, and the gardens are cleaned up.  And the media centre was right at the heart of that.

A very different example but one of my favourites is a little web-driven charity called Savvy Chavvies.    Yes, you heard it right, Savvy Chavvies.  I said, “Are you sure that’s okay to call yourself that?” and they said, “Yes, absolutely, we got the kids to name it”.  Savvy Chavvies works with gypsy and Romany communities, traditionally very hard to reach, and addresses the big problem of young people being bullied at school.  Many people in this room will know a lot more than me about this subject, I’m sure, but what struck me about Savvy Chavvies was that it was the young people themselves determining what they would find useful in helping combat some of the feelings of isolation and loneliness which very often led to them being excluded from school, all of the things that you hear about very frequently.

So they set up an online community and they could share their experiences with other gypsy and Romany children from all over Europe.  And the children engaged in that community, only small numbers but growing very fast, I think up, to 80,000 when I last looked, and are now being supported, sharing stories, and feeling more able to cope with some of the things that perhaps had been far too difficult.

Online application forms

I think that funders also have a big role to play here.  I was looking around at some of the application requirements to funders and only Comic Relief requires that you have to submit your funding application online.  Until funders really believe that technology can help not only the charities but also the end users, it is going to be hard to make big inroads into making sure that charities have the tools that they need to best serve their end-users.  The US really does lead the way here.  There are organisations such as Kiva who have broken the traditional model of funding enormously successfully.  Kiva is a micro-funding site.  To date they have lent about £150 million, and they have about 280,000 people who have lent money through the site.  You pick what you would like to lend money to, and it gets paid back to you over time.  You can see your projects and you can come together to create collective and collaborative ways of funding things.

We’ve had success here too.  Just Giving has been an enormously important and influential piece of the puzzle in terms of how to bring some of the wonderful aspects of social media to some of the harder aspects of fundraising, and to date £450 million has been raised through the Just Giving website and through its tools, which is absolutely fantastic. But I believe that there is much more that can be done to really show the effectiveness and the engagement and the measurability of using the online world to help solve some of the knottier problems that we face. I think funders should also be thinking ‘Internet First’ and be as scared as the commercial sector is when they hear Eric Schmidt’s words.

Path to prison

Perhaps the biggest challenge is one that I think the internet has thrown up more than any other, and that is allowing users, customers, viewers, and other people who enjoy your services to determine how they want them to look, feel, and be run. This to me is the biggest exciting development that the internet has enabled: a big shift in power from a broadcast model to one that is much more driven by the individual.

There are some fantastic projects that are encouraging social change and really looking at the beginning of the chain before people end up in prison, before they start upon a life from which it is very hard to return.   Livity is an organisation in south London that works with young people to talk about and help them create tools to explain and broadcast some of the issues that they face. One of the projects that they ran last year, I think, into this year, is called is Dubplate Drama.  Six million children have now looked at their drama, and this was in answer to the question, “How can we reduce gun crime and knife crime here in south London?”  And what the children who were asked came up with was an online drama which they could star in, which they could choose the endings of, which they could look at, and which they could be interactive with and change every single day, and it created this enormous community of feeling and interest in south London.  It’s too early to tell if it’s had an impact but I really think it must have.  But it was a brave thing to do, to throw the question back to the children and to then let them do exactly what they wanted in delivering it.

Similarly, Channel 4 has run a fantastic programme called Battlefront. Battlefront came from Channel 4’s education budget which it now spends entirely online. The idea was that young people should be allowed to campaign with small amounts of funding from Channel 4.  They have had some extraordinary successes. There is a young woman who has run a youth orchestra from London in Iraq. She’s an Iraqi, 18-years-old,her parents were killed in the war, and she loved music. She was taught music but it had to stop when the war broke out, but she assembled a youth orchestra by doing the auditions entirely online, finding and getting everybody together online, and then having one big event when she was able to travel safely back to Iraq.  She’s now back in London but the youth orchestra survives, and children living in really desperate circumstances have joined her.

A bit different, but last week another group of young people who had started their own campaign by Battlefront about the alternative vote came to meet the Deputy Prime Minister.  They were running a very successful campaign as they felt as though their voices weren’t being heard and that there should absolutely, as a point of immediacy, be a reduction in the voting age to 16.

Two very different examples but again, one is precipitated by the internet, one is fuelled by the tools that it allows people to use.  Certainly, we would have been dead in the water at lastminute.dot if we hadn’t listened to our users every day, if we hadn’t asked them how they would have solved some of the problems.   We even got them to test for bugs on our site.  We gave away prizes if they found more bugs than we could.  They did our work for us.

Join the conversation

I think that’s why I feel we have an incredible opportunity in the UK right now.  Everything is going in our favour.  We have an enormous amount of successes on which to build.  We have some fantastic technology companies, a very large internet audience.  We have the technology going in our favour, becoming cheaper, more agile, more open.  We have a coalition government that is committed to increasing transparency, increasing accountability, and attempting to give more power to local communities, not less.

That is why it is more important than ever that we fight to make sure that everybody is able to use those tools and to join in the conversation.  There should be no one for whom the internet is a scary or dangerous or difficult place. And I guess that is why when Jon [Snow] wrote to me to invite me to speak tonight, it didn’t take even a moment to say, “Yes, I would love to have the honour of delivering the Longford Lecture”, because I hope, not ever having known him but having read quite a bit about him in the last few weeks, that Lord Longford would also have been very much in favour of making sure that nobody is left behind, and that all nine million people who have never used the internet become part of the conversations that are increasingly happening online regardless of where you live, where you are or what you’ve done.

Thank you very much.”