This week I was lucky enough to attend the 10th National Digital Leaders' Conference, in the beautiful surroundings of One Whitehall Place.
The idea behind the conference is to "bring together UK digital leaders, innovators and inspirational speakers to identify, debate and brainstorm the key opportunities and networks to kick-start a new agenda for digital growth, transformation and social innovation over the next Parliament."
The overarching theme of the day was digital inclusion, something which I find constantly fascinating and which we have an urgent need to address while the internet is still in its formative years. As we make the big digital march forward, how can we make sure large sections of the population aren't left behind? We can already see evidence of the digital divide and this has a negative impact not just on the economy but on society itself, it was inspiring to spend the day with people who are putting this front and centre in their agenda.
Rather than give a blow-by-blow account - take a look at the ND15 website for details of the programme, speakers and videos of the talks - here are some common themes that were evident throughout the day.
Digital training boosts the economy
A fully digital nation would add £63 billion to our annual GDP and digital technology could unlock £18.8 bn in revenue for UK small and medium-sized businesses, according to Go On UK, the cross-sector digital skills charity established in 2012 by ND15 speaker Martha Lane-Fox.
It offers quick savings too. More than 12 million adults lack the digital skills to access online services, with the goal for 2016 being to reduce that figure by 25%. If people have the digital skills to use platforms like GOV.UK, it massively reduces the amount of phone calls and personal appointments they have to make, directly saving time and money for government departments and the general public too.
MP Matt Hancock backed this up with some good examples. 25% of calls to the DVLA are people checking on the status of their payments. A common payments platform where people can track their payments - in the same way that you might track a UPS delivery to your home - can help cut down on this.
Historically, official paper-based forms have had to be lengthy and complicated so they can capture every single relevant bit of information. Now, we can recognise the IP address and see, for example, that the person is based overseas and will be given extra questions to ask, whereas the average UK person won't have to fill all this in.
(Having been part of the Government Digital Services team training editors on writing for GOV.UK, I must pick Matt Hancock up on saying 'fill out a form' rather than the UK English 'fill in.' He needs to read the style guide!)
In conversation with Dr Sue Black, Martha Lane-Fox said if we are truly going to achieve a digital transformation we need to do two things:
1. Be more ambitious! We need a bold national plan.
2. Make sure there's enough money to do it. it's a false saving to not put money into digital investment. We need to think: people-plan-process.
Put user needs at the heart of everything you do
As Matt Hancock explained, technology is there to make the complex more simple. It shouldn't be complicated just because it relates to technology. Simply putting a postcode into a computer is difficult for around 15% of the population and digital transformation gives us the opportunity to make life easier for millions.
Shortly after, Dr Sue Black told the story of a market stall owner who said that knowing how to add an attachment to an email had changed her life. It's easy when you work in tech to think that everyone is working at a very advanced level, but in fact it's small changes like this that can make a big difference.
Matt Hancock also told an interesting story about Helsinki. After heavy snowfall, town planners go out and look at the tracks people make in the snow to see the paths they really travel, then they re-lay the roads accordingly. This aligns with the GOV.UK approach; stop expecting your users to wade through loads of content to get to the bits they're really looking for and put their needs first. Find out what phrases people are actually using to look up your services on the web, and make sure they're in your copy so you're easy to find.
Digital isn't about tech, it's about people
Nick Williams, Lloyds Consumer Digital Director, said it's so important to think about how people are using the internet. Their customers don't just compare them to other banks, they expect the same level of service as Domino's Pizza. They have to be multi channel, offering a mix of 'brick and click'. Be where your customers are.
This approach is also important when you're thinking about helping people improve their digital skills. Helen Milner of the Tinder Foundation explained that we don't need to search for a silver bullet, we already know what works; hyper-local community-based initiatives helping become to become more tech savvy.
Running through all this is the issue of the cost. A massive 32% of people who are not online say it's because they can't afford it. Yes, libraries offer free internet access, but if you're working two jobs and have childcare to consider, you might want to go online when the kids are asleep in the evening. We need to tackle this need urgently, otherwise more and more people are going to be left behind.
Give the next generation the right skills
Elizabeth Vega, CEO of Informed Solutions said that young people might be used to being consumers of digital services, but are they the shapers? It brought to mind something Rachel Rayns - at the time artist in residence at Raspberry Pi - said when she came to one of our Creative Ely events. There's an ever-increasing amount of lovely shiny boxes out there but fewer and fewer people who know who to make these shiny boxes work.
Emma Mulqueeny of Rewired State says that Year 8 is too late. We need to grab children's attention way, way earlier than this. Ed Vaizey said that as well as putting coding in the curriculum, industry needs to act as an educator too. I liked Ben Rowland from Arch's suggestion of a 2-day digital training session for young people to bring them up to speed and make them more employable.
Mulqueeny also proposed a £5m project where £1m was created in five organisations to give people from all ages and backgrounds digital skills, which would lead to a return to the economy in the billions. There are a lot of bright, brilliant women out there want to work part time around their children - why are we not teaching them how to code?
And we mustn't forget the older generation (personally I'd love to see a nationwide training programme to get older people up to speed on editing Wikipedia - just think of that rich spread of knowledge that could be shared). Jeh Kazimi, Founder of Breezie showed us the tools they've developed to get senior citizens and their carers online.
Women are (still) underrepresented in tech
Dr Sue Black explained how in the early days of the internet she got all excited about the possibilities for a wider range of people having their voices heard...but what happened was that a bunch of rich white men just got richer. The percentage of women now in Parliament is low...but it's still double the percentage of women in the tech sector.
Of course this is a problem. It's about power, about there only being one point of view. Balanced teams make better products, says Martha Lane-Fox. She brought up an example from Silicon Valley investor Ben Horowitz, who found that women tended to hire more women, and someone of Chinese origin tended to hire people with a similar ethnic background. We have this unconscious bias...which it's why it's so important to cross reference, whether you're hiring long term or putting together a panel event. You get a diversity of experience and thinking.
I hate to bring this up - because wouldn't it be great to reach a point where it's not worth noting - but out of a rich programme of 20 speakers, ten were women. So if we're talking about leading by example, ND15 is walking the walk and not just talking the talk! This has a hugely positive trickle down effect on someone like me, who was able to sit and learn from the infectious enthusiasm and drive of people like Benita Matofska, Founder of Compare and Share and CEO of Go ON UK, Rachel Neaman.
Government should set an example too
This idea popped up several times and is very welcome. Ben Rowland suggested having digital apprentices in Parliament, while Helen Milner floated the idea that businesses should be able to gain a digital employer accreditation, which should extend to contractors as well as permanent staff...and that this should start with Whitehall.
One obstacle highlighted by Martha Lane-Fox was the Victorian-based structure of government, which means we still view budgets and results in silos (this word came up a lot!) So while there is a clear economic benefit to digital training, because it benefits everyone so widely no department actually wants to stump up the cash.
But the message is clear: if we want digital transformation and digital inclusion, then government has to lead the way.