Bridging the Digital Divide

On my travels today I was invited to connect my linked-in network to my flight so I could see who else it might be interesting to talk to on the plane. Ignoring the value I might place on travelling as a bit of space and time for me, it is a reminder of how far and fast mobile computing is moving. However, even in this age of apparently ubiquitous mobile communication and enhanced personal computing in the UK 10 million people do not have access to the internet and of these, 4 million are the most socially and economically disadvantaged in the country. 1 in 4 adults have never used the internet. 39% of people over 65 do not have internet access and 70% of people who live in social housing aren’t on-line (data from the Royal Geographical Society).

The BRIDGE (Building Relationships with the Invisible in the Digital Global Economy) has been a three year collaborative EPSRC research project between the Institute for Transport Studies and partners in the Product Design and Engineering Department, Middlesex University and the Engineering Design Centre, University of Cambridge. It started with the premise that over time, non-participation will lead the excluded to become invisible. They will have little influence on the design of new services and will therefore not be able to become part of the potential future market. Reflecting back on the statistics once more, 80% of government transactions are with the 25% of the population that are worst off and least engaged with the internet. It will be difficult to transition to fully automated systems unless the demand and supply side is planned in an integrated manner.

The research at ITS looked at the acceptance and potential for three different types of technology. The first, more automated driving assistance, was used to establish some basic contentions about technology acceptance amongst users of computers versus non-users. Sometimes the obvious result is a relief! Whilst both groups were sceptical this was far more so with the non-computer users. The next two tests were more practical applications. The first of these looked at the role of in-car information systems which gave warnings about speed limits, accidents ahead, congestion and facilities such as pubs and rest areas. This appeared to add to the driving experience even for non-users of computers although less critical information such as rest area location was deemed to be distracting.

The final experiment looked at the role of technological aids for walking such as digital maps, information about buildings, shops and buses, and video contact with friends. Participants walked local areas whilst using tablet computers. The study has found that the social organisation and specialisation of roles within the home have a significant impact on learning to use these technologies; that usefulness is informed by the penetration of social media and technology within their social networks; and that there are indications of positive impacts on physical connectivity in both familiar and unfamiliar surroundings. Participants who are currently not using digital technologies expressed both their desire to learn how to become a user, as well as the obstacles preventing them to do so. Further work has been looking at the interface design issues and how it maps to people’s expectations.

So, some new technology appears to have the potential to add to the travel experience of those that are currently digitally marginalised. It is not the case that they don’t use these technologies because they don’t want to. Different design concerns do emerge for these users although it is not possible from this study to separate out fully the effects of age or income and experience. This is one of many strands of technology acceptance research on-going at the Institute and it looks set to be a growth area. Innovations will continue to be pushed out into the market place and research has an important role to play in anticipating those, shaping them and ensuring they are as compatible as possible with a sustainable and equitable transport system for the future.

The BRIDGE project is led at the Institute for Transport Studies by Yvonne Barnard.

This is part of a monthly blog on research projects at the Institute for Transport Studies by the Director, Dr Greg Marsden (G.R.Marsden@its.leeds.ac.uk)

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