Background | Quick start | Digital Divide | What is Social Exclusion | How technology can play a part | Community networking | The benefits of Getting Connected | Planning a network | Neighbourhood renewal | Case studies and awards | Discussion points |

How new technology can help the socially excluded in the Knowledge Society

by David Wilcox 

Quick Start

What are the key issues for discussion? Jump in here on whether public access will bridge the Digital Divide...changes in store for organisations...what's really useful.

Read your ways into ideas about Digital Divide, social exclusion, and community networking.

Check who is doing what. Examples of public bodies and non-profits using ICTs for community benefit - including recent award winners.

Plan a local initiative. What are the steps to introduce technology - and get other partners on board.


The use of new information and communication technologies (ICTs) will be important for housing professionals on a number of fronts:

This article focuses on the fourth point, and particularly the idea that new technology is fundamental to closing 'have and have not' gaps, empowering individuals, and rebuilding community.

Digital Divide

Digital Divide is now used by politicians worldwide as shorthand to express fears that many people will miss out in a world where access to information, and the skills to handle it, will be increasingly important. Implicit in many of their promises to 'bridge the gap' is the belief that better connections and more information will help to combat social exclusion.

From that assumption we are merely a photo opportunity away from a new centre on an estate where mums and kids, grannies and unemployed young people are smiling over their computer screens.

The Government has announced an ambitious programme to fund up to 1000 learning access centres in deprived neighbourhoods, and has placed strong emphasis on the need for these to be community-based rather than simply adjuncts to colleges or local authorities. More on this below.

These centres will certainly be important building blocks - or nodes - in creating 'knowledgeable communities'. But they are not all that will be needed - and the term Digital Divide may encourage us to gloss over what is involved in helping more people become connected and capable citizens. Wires alone will not bridge the gap.

Kevin Harris of the Community Development Foundation says:'The danger in calling it a 'digital divide' is that it makes it seem like you're either in one place or the other, you're either a member of society or you're not. It's much more complex than that. For example, just having a computer at home does not equate with being 'connected'. It's not even a necessary condition.

'Being connected in the Network Society will mean knowing how to exploit access to communication channels and learning technologies for personal, community, social and economic development. That means having basic literacy and numeracy, a little technical understanding, a lot of communication skills, and information handling skills. Many of these attributes can be gained, or significantly enhanced, most effectively in a community context, and that context brings with it all sorts of spin-off benefits, as we know.' More from Kevin.

More about the Digital of an international campaign, resources, and critiques of the term.

Many new useful Web services are used in the UK and other countries in 2011-2023.

What is social exclusion?

In April 2000 the Government's Social Exclusion Unit produced a summary of recommendations drawn from the work of 18 Policy Action Teams. It concluded:

'Over the past 20 years poverty has become more concentrated in individual neighbourhoods and estates than before, and the social exclusion of these neighbourhoods has become more marked.

'But this is about more than poverty. It is about the fact that compared with the rest of the country many deprived areas have 30 per cent high mortality rates; 25 per cent more people with low skills and literacy; unemployment rates six times as high; and three times as much burglary'.

The success of any strategy, said the SEU, should be measured against a simple goal - to narrow the gap between deprived areas and the rest of the country by dramatically improving outcomes - with more jobs, better educational achievement, less crime and better health - in most deprived areas. Action would be needed on four fronts:

The SEU has launched a consultation programme around the proposals.

How technology can play a part

The main role for IT identified in the SEU report (key idea 2) is under Reviving Local Economies:

'Improving IT in deprived neighbourhoods, by ensuring at least one publicly-accessible, community-based facility in each deprived community by 2002; and by encouraging people to use them by employing local champions and offering user-friendly courses'.

The Minister for Learning and Technology Michael Wills had already announced in January a £252 million programme for creating 700 centres, and the Department for Education and Employment is responsible for driving this forward. There are funds for capital, and also for revenue from the New Opportunities Fund.

The Community Media Association offers an exciting vision of how centres could be creative hubs in their communities:

'Imagine a media centre equipped with multimedia computers, digital editing software and permanent high speed Internet access, digital radio studios for production and broadcast, a digital video editing suite and television studio, broadcast transmission facilities and links to local cable and ADSL networks. Situate the centre in the heart of your community, with friendly staff and volunteers providing training in journalism and creative production skills, technical support and centre administration. All this could now be eligible for Government capital and revenue funding support.'

Computer Gym is a mobile learning centre that provides informal training for children, teenagers and adults, ranging from basic computer skills to web page design. They work with the Peabody Trust in London, the Home Group in Newcastle, local authorities and other registered social landlords.

They find that for many people the cost of a bus fare or the lack of confidence in using schools, libraries or other formal environments prevents take up of free ICT training. Their truck, complete with eight networked computers, printers, scanners, digital cameras and staff, brings technology to people rather than the other way around.

Deborah Thompson, director of Computer Gym says: 'One of the key factors is providing a friendly, relaxed environment where we can capture people's imaginations and increase their self confidence. We find out what people want and make learning relevant to their lives.' More on Computer Gym

Peabody Trust has been at the forefront of using ICT in training and employment initiatives. Its flagship project is the Digital Learning Ring, a network of five estate-based training centres giving residents access to training through the latest technology including video conferencing, email and the Internet.

More on PAT 15 and the development of learning access centres

Community networking

The idea of using ICTs for community benefit gathered force first in North America in the 1980s and 1990s with the growth of community networks and community technology centres.

Networks originally developed from direct-dial bulletin board systems providing community information and conferencing facilities, and later provided people with Internet access. In the mid-1990s networks grew to offer a range of technical facilities and specialist content, usually operating as nonprofit bodies with universities, colleges, libraries and other civic institutions acting as supporters.

The DfEE has - to some extent - endorsed the idea of area-wide initiatives by highlighting 'community grids' on its site - but often these are little more than local authority web sites.

The challenge for area-wide nonprofit networks is how to sustain their operations in a climate where commercial providers offer a wide range of free services and content, and public funding is time-limited.

One community in Hulme, Manchester, has come up with a solution - Do It Yourself. Tenants on the Redbricks estate get 'always on' Internet connections, and and internal network, for £3 week.

Nigel Stewart, who started he project, said: 'It is surprising what local talent you can find locally. Someone says 'Fred may be able to do that' - and when you ask, he probably can.

'One of the advantages of doing it yourself is that people feel that they own it. People don't pull down the wires because they feel it is theirs.'

More on community networking

Many new Web services are used in the UK and Scotland in 2011-2023.

The benefits of Getting Connected

US community networker Terry Grunwald, in her book Making the Net Work, suggests there are four main areas of benefit for community groups (and others):

Thinking about these four areas of value is a useful corrective to diving in with 'why don't we create a web site!'

What are the real needs of the group? Getting all members on email and helping them to become effective users of information may be a better first step.

The different areas of value require different types of access. It is possible to access limited information through kiosks. Library access, perhaps with some staff support, would offer far better opportunities, and possibly use of email. A learning access centre would extend the opportunities for people to work individually and together - and could be a good setting for development of a group Web site. On the other hand, people need personal desktop access for the day-to-day use of email in a business. Even if there is one Internet-enabled computer in, say, an office, a number of users may have considerable frustration in using it. They would need passwords and ways to organise their own information.

Tony Kerr co-ordinates a network of community enterprises. He says:

'The technology does give us real benefits - on the visibility front it makes us seem bigger than we are, gets our message out (at no marginal cost) to all sorts of people we'd never have dreamt of contacting, but who we can work with, help and learn from.

'Obviously there are concerns that some people will be excluded - but it will be fewer than we feared, because of things like web-based email which can be used from different computers, and TV and mobile phone access that will complement PCs (just think what text messages have done to young people's social life).

'The main barriers we find are primitive and unfriendly hardware and software, plus the old-fashioned producer-dominated culture of the main service providers.' More from Tony.

Planning a network

Supposing a housing association, local authority and other agencies decided to promote use of ICTs in a deprived area… what would they need to do?

First, think about the purpose.

Secondly, start a process which:

Thirdly, evolve an organisation

There's more detail on this type of process at It involves bringing together the development of a new partnership or network of interests, introduction of technology, and changes within the organisations involved.

Richard Stubbs, director of Newham Online, says that a key issue is that organisations from all sectors setting out to deliver local services digitally adopt a strategy for how this should be done. 'As the primary accountable local service provider it is appropriate that the local Council takes a lead in helping this to happen providing it recognises that it can only lead and support the process but not control it.'

Nick Plant, of the Community Information Systems Centre at the University of the West of England, emphasises the need for a developmental process.

'Socially inclusive technology does not come at the touch of the button. In our work we've found that sustainability requires a 'slow burn' approach involving bottom-up learning processes and formative evaluation practices. Building and maintaining genuine community ownership rather than speaking 'for' communities is also vital, and requires time and much commitment.

'Deeper exclusion can result otherwise, and we need to beware 'stitched up thinking' (as a fellow academic put it at a conference I was at recently) in place of 'joined up thinking'. All this depends to a large extent on expertise, as it requires community development skills and facilitation, not technical skills and solutions: this technology is far too important to be left to the technologists!'

Relation to neighbourhood renewal strategies

In a review of regeneration programmes and neighbourhood initiatives for the Joseph Rowntree Foundation by Marilyn Taylor spells out the key themes that Neighbourhood Management needs to address and sums up the most promising ideas that are coming out of practice and research. It argues that effective Neighbourhood Management in the future will depend on the following principles:

Checklist for a connected community

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation didn't go on to examine the role the ICTs might play in neighbourhood initiatives, but one might suggest, on the lines of Community Networking Charter developed by UK Communities Online

A small community networking organisation, the Sussex Community Internet Project, based in Brighton and Hove, is promoting this approach, with the added advantage that its Web sites contains many resources useful to other projects outside Sussex. At a more strategic level, Newham Council, through the Newham Online partnership, is developing broadband infrastructure and a range of projects covering all aspects of civic life, learning, democracy and regeneration. See the section on case studies and awards for more.

Cambridge Online City tackles social exclusion in this field by creating free Internet access points, providing 100 bookable one-to-one Internet tutorials at many of these,developing support materials for newcomers to the internet and encouraging onward links to other training providers, and working with a community eduction college and primary school close to local council housing.

Valerie Neal, Cambridge Online City Development Officer, says: 'Newcomers to the Internet often take some time to build up confidence in searching for information on the Internet.

'We have already researched information in many of the subject areas relevant to social exclusion, and you can find the links on our site.'

Chris Levack works with local groups to help them develop Community Archives on the web. He has just started a European-funded project on three large housing estates in West Yorkshire, with the aim of building community capacity.

He says rapid progress is possible on a project which catches people's imagination. 'The groups have constituted themselves, applied for funding for their own equipment, developed significant local archives that they own the copyright to, and soon they will be publishing these and identifying revenue streams that will not only maintain their archives on the Web but also produce a small income stream.'

A community networking empowerment ladder

Partnerships Online suggests that, for people to be effective and capable users of ICTs, they will need:

Information, case studies and awards

These listings are intended as examples of current national and local developments, rather than a comprehensive guide.

Information sites and networks

Joseph Rowntree Foundation

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation's new website enables users to identify anything the Foundation has produced as part of its extensive research programme into housing and other social issues. Summaries can be downloaded in easy to print formats.


Housingnet provides comprehensive listings of housing organisations as well as information on housing maintenance, student accommodation, and private housing resources.

Hostels Online

Hostels Online is a database of over 540 hostels for homeless people across London, with a further 350 hostels outside London. There is a comprehensive information page available for every hostel on the system.

For the 50 or so direct access hostels in London, Hostels Online provides listings of available beds updated by the hostels as vacancies arise or are filled. The web site displays a list of hostels, how many vacancies they have and when the information was last changed.

For non-direct hostels there is a rolling programme bringing them online and giving them the ability to advertise either vacancies or whether they currently have an open or closed waiting list.

Instead of having to phone round all the hostels to find one with a vacant bed or open waiting list; advice services and day centres can view accurate and up-to-date information about vacancies in all the participating hostels using this website.

Welfare benefits

Rightsnet is a Lottery-funded site which provides information, advice and support to advice workers.

People for Action

People for Action is 'the national network of housing organisations committed to ideas and actions that put influence and power into the hands of local people'. It uses its website as a gateway through to specialist information for members, and Mutual Interest Group discussion areas where members can discuss and develop projects.

PFA shares some information with with other networks using the Networks Online system.

Local projects

The Government's Policy Action Team 15 lists case studies it examined during development of its recommendations.

Local training and support 


'Help Us Be Successful is an innovative training programme which brings new opportunities to people not catered for by existing education provision. It is based in Sussex, UK and funded by the UK Government, SUN Microsystems and other supporters. We focus on content creation -- pictures, words, videos, music, sounds, web pages, etc. -- as a means of engaging the interest of people who may not be interested in traditional education opportunities.'

Village website

Maidenbower Village Residents Association

This award-winning village website already boasts that you can access it via a WAP phone. It provides information on local facilities, news, and a discussion forum in which residents are able to discuss various matters concerning the area

Centrepoint's virtual homelessness site

The youth homelessness charity Centrepoint, challenges visitors to its web to an interactive 'virtual homelessness' game which takes them through the realities of homelessness and the policy issues.

DIY connections in Hulme


New Start magazine reported in April 2000: 'A council estate in Hulme, Manchester, which has had more than its fair share of inner-city problems - poverty, unemployment, drugs, crime - is pulling itself into a sophisticated online future without grants, handouts or outside assistance.

'Residents of the six blocks of flats known as 'the Redbricks' are creating a virtual community with their own intranet and a shared connection to the world wide web - and the real-life community is being invigorated in the process.

'Ninety Redbricks flats, a fifth of the total, are online and pay £3 a week to use their intranet and the Internet. There are no phone bills or hidden costs, and most use renovated computers bought from Luton-based Recycle-IT! and installed for around £100 each. The £3 covers the leased line to the Internet - £300 a month - and helps pay off the setting up costs. '

Residents Online

The London and Quadrant Group has developed a comprehensive Residents Online site, with news, information on repairs and moving home, and discussion areas. More here about the site.


Local Government Association Website of the Year 2000

Rutland County Council

The judges said: 'This site embraces a partnership between Rutland County Council and Rutland On Line Ltd to provide an essential virtual community and information resource. The site is inspiring in the way it goes about raising awareness of the potential of the Internet and e-commerce for local businesses, enhancing on-line information on lifelong learning opportunities and encouraging village communities to join and contribute to the information network.'

LGA Environment & Renaissance category

Green C@amden

The LGA Awards judges said: 'A micro website dedicated to green issues and the environment within the Council's corporate web presence, packed with information on all things green including air pollution, green travel, recycling, energy, trees and much more.'

LGA Enhancing Public Service Provision category

Tameside Metropolitan Borough Council

The LGA Awards judges said: 'Excellent use of online forms and innovative introduction of on-line secure payment for items such as Council Tax, general bills and parking fines. After 10 weeks of service, the Council had already recorded some 950 online transactions.'

LGA Reinvigorating Local Democracy category

Bristol City Council

The LGA Awards judges said: 'Use of 'Bristol Matters' branding to provide a clear explanation of the democratic process. The site offers extensive online information on committee diaries, minutes and reports and also incorporates advanced search facilities and online consultation. '

Discussion points

We should plan for what's coming - not just what is

We face a dilemma in planning ICT provision in deprived neighbourhoods. Few people currently have access, and the growth of personal use is likely to be slow because of low-incomes, issues of confidence and skills, and lack of perceived benefits. The temptation is to go for relatively basic technologies for fear of being out of touch with people's expectations. But will that marginalise people still further when within a few years many people will have high-bandwidth and 'always on' connections - and services will increasingly be designed to these standards?

Access is the last thing to think about

Helping people get connected is obviously essential if they are to benefit from online services - whether at home, school, library, cybercafe or community access centre. However, the type of connection and support should be determined by the prior question of 'why connect'. For example touch-screen kiosks are useful for some public information, but useless for day to day communication. Giving groups computers will raise issues of technical support. See the sections on Benefits of getting connected, and Connectivity ladder.

Empowering online citizens also means empowering public agencies and officials.

If the 'customers' of public and nonprofit bodies are to benefit from online services, there is a prior requirement that the information providers can provide user-friendly and relevant content, respond to emails, and change working practices to fit less hierarchical ways of operating. Much community participation fails because agencies cannot respond effectively to the ideas developed, or organise 'joined up delivery'. The same will be true in the online world…. so council and agency staff will require online access, training and support linked to changes within organisations to accommodate new ways of working.

Local projects need local champions - online

Local centres or networks need one or two committed individuals to drive them forward -as well as a commitment to involve the community they serve and work with other partners. All those at the core of the project must practice what they preach and work online.

Online services do not wholly substitute for other forms of communication.

Email, Web and other applications all have their benefits in delivering information and opening up new opportunities for communication, learning and development. But people still need to meet face to face, use the phone, read printed material… in fact 'virtual' contact often generates more 'real world' contact.

Online citizens may demand greater transparency from organisations and use their collective power online if they don't get it.

As more people get online and experience sophisticated commercial services, they will expect public and nonprofit agencies to do the same. If they are dissatisfied, they may discover that one of the most 'empowering' uses of the Net lies in online campaigning - sharing concerns and possibly mounting e-campaigns through email or Web sites. They may use the profile gained to engage the interest of traditional media.

The real issue is how to be a connected citizen in a networked society - it's who you know as much as what you know

Information alone doesn't empower people. New technology will be most helpful where it also helps people make connections with others who have shared interests, and gain access to organisations and networks who are making their services and operations more transparent. As more and more 'business' is done online, to be unconnected is to be out of the loop.

Being connected doesn't necessarily mean using a computer.

Industry forecasts show mobile phones, TV and games machines providing much Internet access within a few years. Voice recognition should make people less dependent on keyboard skills. It is, of course, a matter of horses for courses. Some simple functions may be provided by TV and phones, but computers will probably be needed by those developing their own Web sites.

Technology isn't the main problem in getting a local project started.

The technology may not be easy - but people are tougher! Most local projects that go beyond a website will require collaborations between different interests, who will have different agendas and different levels of experience. Working out agreed goals, responsibilities and ways of operating - and developing a business plan - are likely to prove most taxing.

The fanciest technology isn't necessarily the most useful

Simple, free, email discussion lists like Egroups may be most useful in building communities of interest. Websites are fine - if people can find then, and others will maintain them. Helping people learn how to be effective users of information is probably a more useful first step than expecting them to suddenly be publishers.