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Access and the ability to effectively use information and communications technologies (ICT) to obtain information and services are increasingly important to fully participate in contemporary Australian economic, political and social life.
ICT have brought about significant changes in the way people create, share and consume information. It has changed and continues to change the way organisations within the for-profit, public and nonprofit sectors run their businesses and provide services. As ICT become embedded in daily life, there is a growing need for ICT literacy in public and private life.
The Australian Government is committed to ensuring that Australian communities, households and individuals are able to fully participate in the information economy. While overall Internet use in Australia continues to rise, with household Internet access at 60 per cent (and Internet access at 84 per cent from any location), disparities in online access and use still exist. People on low incomes, aged over 65, without tertiary education, or of Indigenous heritage are less likely to use ICT and have internet access.
Historically, a lack of access to ICT was defined as a Digital Divide; the concept that society should not be separated into information rich and poor. This view resulted in an emphasis on providing hardware to marginalised and disadvantaged groups. While the provision of hardware is vital, it is now seen as one of a range of factors that must be addressed to increase participation in the information economy.
Current research indicates that the 'Digital Divide' is best understood as part of a socio-economic context and related to the issue of social exclusion. As such, solutions need to go beyond technology. Furthering digital inclusion will require a detailed understanding of the relationships between information, people and technology. A broadening of our understanding of the digital divide drawing on multiple disciplines is now possible.
A more comprehensive understanding of the digital divide, as based on different degrees of access to information technology rather than a simple division between information 'haves and have-nots", is needed to successfully address the problem of digital exclusion. As leading US academic Dr Mark Warschauer succinctly states, "The bottom line is that there is no binary divide, and no single overriding factor for determining such a divide".
Re-conceptualising the digital divide in terms of digital inclusion and exclusion requires policy and projects to focus attention on the social, cultural, economic, educational and material factors that continue to exclude people from participating in society generally and specifically the information economy. This approach recognises technology use and skill as a complex milieu of physical, digital, human and social resources and relationships. Thus, at least as much attention, planning and resources need to go into the human and social systems that supports technology use. Using technology to promote social inclusion is a more productive approach to ensuring digital inclusion.
This shift in focus is reflected in Australia's Strategic Framework for the Information Economy 2004-2006, which acknowledges the potential for new technologies as a platform for stronger social cohesion and underpinning social development.
The barriers to digital inclusion cover social, economic, technical and cultural issues that may be experienced by many groups in society. Some groups may experience a number of these factors which need to be addressed holistically. Addressing the broader reasons and impacts of non-participation is critical to developing appropriate solutions. Digital inclusion therefore recognizes how the combination of elements may limit participation in the information economy. The range of elements to focus on include:
Access: infrastructure (adequate bandwidth capacity and affordable and reliable Internet connections); computer hardware and software; publicly provided access.
Techno-Literacy: basic ICT information and training to increase user confidence in using both the technology (i.e. PC) and online content/applications/services (i.e. how to extract value from their use).
Awareness: increase awareness of the benefits and uses of ICT and identify and promote the value proposition from ICT for all users in relevant and appropriate economic and social terms by focusing on the transformative effects of ICT rather than on ICT themselves.
Integration: integrate ICT into the social fabric of everyday life (i.e. in the functioning of communities and institutions) and embed technology in people's lifestyles and into the lives of local communities.
Support: provide technical and training support and implement a supportive regulatory regime to engender user confidence and trust and to address issues of privacy, security, and consumer rights.
Applications and Content: develop and produce compelling online content and applications to motivate use and enable users to maximise the benefits of their ICT use.
Going beyond the digital divide and understanding the social factors surrounding technology use and inequality in promoting the use of technology for social inclusion will ensure that people maximise their use and the benefits from ICT.
A social inclusion model directs attention to the necessary social and technological development by embedding technology into everyday life and institutions. This model requires attention to be given to the full breadth of human and physical resources ICT requires. Building on the early success of technology implementation it is now timely to develop our understanding and activities towards deepening public understanding and appraisal of what access to ICT entails and the potential social ends that may be achieved through its effective use.
Australian Development Gateway - ICT for Development
The Australian Government Gateway provides access to digital divide resources and links to national and international digital divide initiatives.
A Victorian Government framework for using technology to create and strengthen communities provides the context for existing and new Internet access and training programs.
As an aspect of Social Inclusion and Community Building strategies, the SA Government's Digital Bridge Unit is focusing on working with key community sectors to reduce inequity in access to and use of ICT, and so increase the social and economic capital of these sectors and the community as a whole.
The InfoXchange - Digital Divide links
Infoxchange Australia is a non-profit company dedicated to providing a quality up-to-date information service to the Australian community sector. The site provides a list of links to Australian and international resources on the digital divide.
Alliance for Digital Inclusion
The Alliance for Digital Inclusion (ADI) is a UK collaboration of businesses, working together to promote digital inclusion. Current members are AOL UK, BT, Cisco Systems UK, IBM UK, Intel UK & Ireland, Microsoft UK and T-Mobile.
Bridges.org - Spanning the International Digital Divide
Bridges.org provides advice on international technology policy-making and works with access initiatives focusing on getting technology used. Its work is geared towards helping people understand technology and change the laws and policies hindering technology use. Bridges.org is committed to helping people in developing countries use ICT to improve their lives.
Caslon Analytical Profiles
Caslon Analytical Profiles provides an overview and easy statistical comparison between the Americas, European Union member states, Australia, New Zealand, Asia, Middle East and less developed countries.
World Resource Institute's Digital Dividend runs activities, such as the Digital Dividend Clearinghouse, aimed at developing sustainable models allowing ICT-for-development to "go global" and create social and economic dividends in developing countries around the world.
Digital Equity Portal
The Digital Equity Portal presents a collection of educational resources addressing inequitable access to technology tools, computers and the Internet. It is designed to help increase the effective use of technology in classrooms. The resources focus on five aspects of digital equity: opportunities for content creation, access to culturally relevant content, effective use of resources, access to high quality digital content and access to learning technology resources. The portal was designed for the National Institute for Community Innovation.
European Union - eInclusion
The Europa Information Society Portal focuses on the concept of eIncusion by providing commentary and links to resources relevant to ensuring equitable access for all within Europe.
Firstmonday - Online Internet Journal
Online peer reviewed journal dedicated to issues related to the Internet.
Oxford Internet Institute
The Oxford Internet Institute (OII) is one of the world's first truly multi-disciplinary Internet institutes based in a major university. Devoted to the study of the societal implications of the Internet, the OII seeks to shape research, policy and practice in the UK, Europe and around the world.
Pew Internet & American Life Project
The Pew Internet & American Life Project produces original, academic-quality reports that explore the impact of the Internet on families, communities, work and home, daily life, education, health care, and civic and political life. The Project also aims to be an authoritative source on the evolution of the Internet through collection of essential, relevant data and timely discussions of real-world developments as they affect the virtual world.
The Benton Foundation
The Benton Foundation develops and implements initiatives and programs aimed at increasing public interest in the digital age and demonstrate the value of communications in solving social problems. It provides various resources, from online publications, discussion groups and toolkits to address the digital divide.
The Digital Divide Network
An online resource providing information, tools and resources on digital divide developments required to address the inequalities in access to and use of communications networks. It functions as a knowledge portal discussing the causes and effects of the digital divide from four distinct angles of: technology access, literacy and learning, content, and economic development.
The Institute for the Study of Digital Inclusion
The mission of the Institute for Digital Inclusion is to promote the use of effective and affordable technology among all communities with the goal of enhancing individual lives, globally.
The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA)
NTIA is an agency of the U.S. Department of Commerce responsible for domestic and international telecommunications and information policy. Its work focuses on promoting the effective and efficient use of telecommunication and information resources to create job opportunities and increase the standard of living.
UK Digital Inclusion Strategy
The report of the UK Digital Inclusion Panel, which has identified social groups at most risk of digital exclusion and actions to encourage them to take up Information and Communication Technologies (ICT) that can help improve their lives.
United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO), Communication and Information in the Knowledge Society
This is UNESCO's international gateway to global communication and information resources and initiatives, which includes International Community Tele Centre Resources and Community Multimedia Centres.
United Nations Information and Communication Technologies Task Force
The UNICT Task Force is an initiative intended to facilitate and coordinate global efforts to bridge the digital divide. It aims to provide leadership in formulating strategies and policies for the use of ICT developments and their applications in eradicating poverty and fostering development in least developed and low-income countries and Africa in particularly. The Task Force website contains extensive information on ICT-for-development issues and projects and initiatives contributing to social and economic development.
World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS)
WSIS is an initiative of the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) in response to the challenges of the global Information Society brought upon by the accelerating convergence between telecommunications, broadcasting media and ICT. The Summit is an opportunity for key stakeholders to gather and develop a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities of the Information Society and its impact on the international community. It aims to develop and implement a concrete action plan to achieve the goals of the Information Society while reflecting the needs and interests of all different stakeholders.