Last month we announced funding for 1,400 new digital champions who will set out to engage new people with the internet, including those with disability/accessibility needs, young adults seeking work, over 65s, and civil society organisations. This is all about simple, fundamental digital skills, putting tools in people’s hands to support them in their day-to-day lives.
Skills which help people get onto the lowest rung of the digital ladder, and the confidence to keep progressing and learning. But we should also be looking beyond this toward where that ladder could lead not so much for individuals but for civil society as a whole.
You don’t have to think too long and hard to come up with examples of individuals making extraordinary things happen using digital tools. The Mark Zuckerbergs and Larry Pages of this world have fundamentally changed our society. Commercial technology platforms are increasingly central to our lives.
Tech-savvy individuals expect to be able to actively shape, create and lead in the world around them. But this hasn’t really created the engine of social change that some might claim, leading Jeremy Heimans to argue that the present test of these ‘conductors of new power is their willingness to engage with the challenges of the least powerful.’
That’s not to decry the impact these people have had. If we’re in the business of empowering people to do more things independently – well, web browsers have done a pretty good job of that. But, there’s certainly something compelling in Martha Lane Fox’s vision of rebalancing the dotcom world toward more civic and communitarian purposes.
So, looking beyond grass roots online skills, what’s the opportunity here for civil society?
How can digital and technology strengthen relationships and change power structures, without reinforcing what some might argue is an increasing preoccupation with more virtual and superficial interactions?
Firstly, getting more from our collective data is vital. There’s some great work going on – for example the Data unity project, funded by Nominet Trust. They’ve developed a tool for social organisations who don’t have access to expensive analytical software, to better analyse complex data, transform it into accessible and compelling insights, and to share it widely as part of a collaborative, sharing network. And 360giving.org is bringing together a huge amount of data from different funders to enable more informed, strategic decisions with scarce resources.
Secondly, how about the capacity for collective action? Rightly, most are cynical about the value of ‘clicktivism’, but what about great initiatives like Citizen Science? This is a great example of how digital can provide a platform for people to collectively tackle major challenges – plugging expert researchers into a huge network of citizens gathering data.
Together, they’ve discovered galaxies, identified new proteins, and accelerated cancer research. Nominet Trust is now exploring how this model could be used on social, rather than scientific challenges. And this links back rather nicely into my previous point about working our data harder. Citizen Science use the lovely phrase ‘serendipitous discovery’ – how in exposing data to more people we make it more likely that someone will spot something odd, weird, and just maybe game-changing. Just think about the potential if we copy that idea into Citizen Social Science.
And what happens where young people with the most up-to-date digital aptitude turn their skills to social purposes?
Apps for Good is an example of this – providing an open-source education resource to schools, which sets students to work on building a mobile, web, or social app to solve issues they care about. Examples include ‘Safe Nav’, which uses police data to give teenagers information about the crime profile of different streets and neighbourhoods, and ‘I’m Okay’ which provides support for young people dealing with gender and sexuality issues.
Ultimately, the diversity of digital practice out there shows that it’s not really a ladder we need to climb, but a broad movement we need to foster that cherry picks the best ideas, the most useful technology and the most adept practitioners in achieving social goals.
Dawn Austwick is chief executive of the Big Lottery Fund