[Digital Nations in the making: Update Pages 20-23 – the Digital Divide].

This month has seen the announcement of the ten successful proposals for the Digital Challenge, put forward by Councils for creating “wired up communities” to tackle social exclusion and disadvantage. The finalists selected by the UK Department of Communities and Local Government from 79 applicants will now each receive £120,000 to strengthen and extend their proposals as they bid for the final prize: £7 million for the winners to implement their plan.

The scheme is reminiscent of the Canadian Smart Communities Programme launched in 2000, which I describe in my Digital nations in the making book. That however was better funded (CAN$60 million), required matching monies and had 12 winners not just one!

There are some interesting and imaginative Digital Challenge proposals and I’m hoping that some at any rate will go ahead in a limited form at least, even if they aren’t winners. The scheme has one great advantage as it maintains the focus on the digital divide. This is important as the gap between those skilled up for the networked world and those who are not, is if anything growing. 

This is what is starting to be called Digital Divide 2.0, although the meaning of the term is evolving and by no means determined. In the new interconnected and globally competitive world, which the web has created, it’s not enough to have access to the physical infrastructure with a modem and computer. You need to be tech-savvy, applying critical skills at the same time as using your IT skills. You need to be able to source the right information, retrieve your data and contacts, manipulate figures, log in at a wi-fi hot spot, share files, use a SMS texting service, collaborate remotely with a team, contribute to a discussion forum, find partners. The list reminds me of a 1998 schedule of skills I compiled for a 21st century model ACL tutor, which is included in Digital nations in the making.

The final selection for the Digital Challenge winner will be difficult to make, but for my money it would be based on an assessment of the applicants’ ability, through the actions proposed, to help promote the mix of technical and critical skills noted above and to deliver on what is promised. For this smart and focused planning and partnerships with community based organisations are essential.

As a Mancunian I’m glad to see that the Manchester City Region has been included in the final ten. The application was submitted by Manchester’s Digital Development Agency with neighbouring councils, Tameside and Salford. This joining up can strengthen the bid, provided there is an indication of a well coordinated approach, which crosses municipal boundaries and that there is potential for wider replication. The WEA’s Community Grid for Learning has been active since 2002 in this area of work through its learners.org.uk portal and will certainly be supporting the bid.