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Tuesday, 1 September 2009

IT Direct

Perhaps we focus too much on infrastructure sometimes. The reality, in Digital Britain, may well be that over 30% of this nation do not have internet access, let alone broadband. But how many attempt to get a computer, get connected, have multiple problems and hence fall at the very first hurdle?

Some years ago, at a Plunkett Foundation event about getting people online, I proposed an NHS Direct equivalent - IT Direct. A freephone number that anyone with a computer related problem could ring to access advice and a choice of local suppliers/repair shops/consultants who could fix the computer problem. Preferably, not based in India.

If Digital Britain is to succeed, we need a computer and internet literate nation. At present, judging by the fact that the majority of internet users I meet still type the name of the website they want to visit into Google (or whichever search page is set in the Home settings by the vendor of their computer) even when they know the URL, we most definitely do not have that. Even the most basic IT problem can be met with blank stares and increasingly urgent requests for help before desperation sets in and the computer is abandoned. Not everyone is a geek!

Many people are incapable of keeping their computer working for any length of time, particularly on a shared computer in a family/domestic environment when it can be used by multiple people, none of whom really not what they are downloading, letting through the firewall etc. If you don't know how to use a search engine to find the answer to a question you can't really voice anyway, and you don't have a geek living next door, or know how to use Twitter etc to get help, you can end up with an untidy, non-functioning plastic box lying dormant in the corner of your room. And a disconnected family.

Once people get online, the problems of computer ownership increase exponentially. A virus in an email, malicious code or scripts on a website, security issues, etc etc etc abound.

What are the solutions???

IT Direct is one.

Then, where are the public service broadcasts at prime time that will help educate our users? Click is hardly a user-friendly program for newbies but that is about all that is on offer.

Let's see Martha Lane-Fox funding 3 min programs about how to:
* protect yourself from viruses
* ensure a website that you are entering credit card details into is secure
* reboot your computer in safe mode
* set up your firewall
* find a computer geek to help you out
* search the Net effectively for answers eg using Boolean operators etc
* seek help online
* set up your wireless network
* share your connection with your neighbours (stuff the T&Cs of the ISPs, this is about connecting Britain)

That would do for a first series!!

Tied into IT Direct, it would be the best, most cost-effective method for persuading people that once online or owning a computer, they won't just be stranded without the information they need to advance. Just before the news every night, a 3 minute family-friendly snippet to help you get the most out of your computer and the Net.

UK Online centres need to get to grips with what they are trying to do and become more accessible, with user friendly websites etc and show they know how to use the technology themselves before attempting to assist others. Libraries should have short DVDs or Youtube footage answering FAQs for those who find themselves disconnected or struggling to solve an IT problem. Schools should have drop-in sessions where the youngsters educate the adults, and vice versa (I know a lot of very canny silver surfers now!). BBC should have short films and a daily dose of IT for the nation. C4 should get involved too, they make excellent films.

Parish Councils should have access to a library of practical information to help out local people. Every single local tip should be gathering all the dumped computers, printers etc and recycling and re-using them, not leaving them out in open skips in pouring rain. (A major bug bear of mine!) Local councils should be encouraging PC recycling schemes and ensuring that every single person on housing benefit is given one. Every community hub (village hall, pub, etc) should be providing open access to broadband to everyone, young and old, and the equipment to do everything required to be a digital citizen. Post Offices should have a 'send an email' facility, as well as fax to email, email to fax, email to snail mail, scanning etc.

I could go on. For hours. If we don't see some joined up thinking in this country soon, we are inevitably going to #fail to be a world leader in this arena. The money is there, the will is there, but is the necessary clarity of thought by those holding the purse strings going to make it happen? We can only wait and see I guess, but there are plenty of us at grassroots, who have to solve these problems day in and day out for FREE, with ideas and the experience to make it work.


John said...

Whilst I agree with the idea of education through TV there is another problem. IT education in schools is far too focused on the use of programmes and ignores the subject of online safety - firewalls, viruses, etc. I have three children in secondary education and I have first hand experience - I do the teaching on these subjects.


Michael said...

Don't forget the role of broadband enabled TVs. We have been running an IPTV service in East London now since 2002. We put fibre between three tower blocks and cat5 cabling to each flat and gave the residents an IP set top box. Residents get freeview, plus 70 TV channels in different languages - all taken from satellite and put into internet protocol and delivered to the TV set. Plus a local TV station with programmes made by residents. Plus a full PC experience on the TV using Open Office over thin client, with all the servers in the basement of one of the tower blocks.
Because it is thin client, with most of the processing and storage done remotely, it is much easier for new users to play around with the system without messing it up.
Because it is delivered over the TV, people do not have to find place for a new and strange piece of kit, but we are just adding functionality to their existing, familiar TV set.
I think one of the great benefits of the move to superfast broadband is that it allows much more user friendly ways for new users to start building confidence in finding their way around the online world.