The Internet is not a Punishment

odp-wigToday is Our Digital Planet’s last day in Wigan. Tomorrow we move on to Leigh.

This morning I help someone register for the Department for Work and Pensions’ Universal Jobmatch site and apply for some jobs. It was painful to watch his technophobia and how much he struggled to accomplish simple tasks on the laptop. But, he had been told that he risked losing his benefits if he didn’t use the site, so he had no choice. I am sure he saw all this as some form of punishment. It’s a real pity when people have to be dragged on to the internet against their will. I wish they could all enjoy it as much as I do.

“Why have I resisted so long?”

He came into the Internet Station of Our Digital Planet in Wigan and without introducing himself said “I’ve reluctantly come to the decision that I can’t hide from the internet any longer. My family are constantly complaining that I don’t participate in things they organise online”.

He asked to be shown how to send an email. Afterwards he said “I feel guilty now I know how easy it is. Why have I resisted so long? My family must think I am so rude”.

The Importance of Digital Storytelling

Last week I got the heart warming news that the LS14 Trust had secured 3 years funding for their Digital Lounge. When I met with them in March, they were seriously fearing closure as the funding they had was running out.

So, I made a video in which the staff members told some stories about how important their work is, and it generated quite a lot of interest.

Digital storytelling is important, and it works. Here’s the video I made with Nic and Jo:

If it makes me happy…

ODP Wigan 5

I’ve just had a lovely chat with a gentleman (who told me he was 85) who came into the Our Digital Planet Internet Station to tell me that new technologies and the internet are all a con.

He proudly stated “I am firmly a man of the 1950s, and that’s how I want to live my life”. He believes that all modern gadgets are part of a process of convincing people to buy things they don’t need. “I’ve seen them walking about with these biscuits” he said (meaning tablets)… “what’s all that about?”. He said he is content with his view that he has had his life and the modern world has nothing to offer him. I told him that made me sad, but he said he has been happy, and sadness has no part in his life. He doesn’t get lonely and is content with his own company.

And then he pulled out his mobile phone, which is pre-programmed with the work and home numbers of his daughter and that of a taxi company. “This is the only new technology I have, and it does those 3 things for me,” he said.

We had to agree to differ, and this was one that got away. But, if he is happy, who am I to ask him to change?


There be dragons

After Day 2 of Our Digital Planet in Wigan, I’m left reflecting on what a scary place the internet is for some people. I listened to a long tale from an older gentleman about the different error messages, warnings, and pop ups which had assailed him during his computer use, and which had eventually convinced him to give the whole thing up. Eventually, I could only advise him to bring his laptop into the Internet Station so I could have a look at it, as, without seeing it, it was impossible for me to judge which of these messages was potentially harmful, and which could easily be dismissed. Those of us who use computers and the internet all the time find it relatively easy to distinguish what we need to worry about and what we don’t, but, for those who are new and irregular visitors, it can seem an impenetrable maze of constant warnings.


Back in the Saddle

I’m writing this on my way to day 2 of Our Digital Planet’s visit to Wigan. Yesterday was almost 6 months to the day from when I locked up the Internet Station and walked away from it in Glasgow, and it was great to be back in there again.

But, of course, what really made it worthwhile was being able to help people do things which will improve their lives. That is a wonderful feeling.

And, to prove a point, our very first visitor was Harriet, who is 81 and was full of tales of the African refugee children she adopted in the 1950s who went on to be successful in the music industry and counted The Beatles and Rolling Stones among their friends. Harriet’s grandson has a degree in Computer Science, but she doesn’t like to bother him with her “trivial” issues, so she will be coming back another day with her laptop and scanner in a trolley.

I believe everyone has a touching point in their lives which will make internet use compelling to them. I will be looking for those touch points in Wigan until Wednesday, and then we move on to Leigh.


Introducing the WOW Bus

OK, this is a working title for a project I am working on, and I need your help.

Our Digital Planet - Bristol

If you follow my work, you’ll be familiar with Our Digital Planet, the touring exhibition, which visits, city centres, engages people through images of internet use, and then coaxes them to get online. Now, I’m working on a project (working title, the WOW Bus) which will do something similar, but fully mobile; able to go anywhere.

The project is at funding application stage. I am working in partnership with a largeish organisation which is putting a chunk of its own resources in and applying, with me, for funding to make the project happen. The plan is for the organisation to use the bus with its own clients, and for myself and others to use it at other times.

I am really excited about this. This needs to be done quickly, and I need to explore a range of options. Which is why I am asking for your support.

I believe in being ambitious. Maybe we’ll have to scale things down, but I’d like this to be a combination of Eastella’s Brilliant Bus, the John Lennon Bus, Peabody Trust’s Digivan, and New York City Housing Authority’s Digital Vans. We want it to create a buzz when it arrives in an area. It will flood the surrounding environment with free wifi and inspire people to explore the digital world. It will be the WOW Bus, because it will be a mobile Window on the World, but also, because people will say “wow!” when they see it.

We are going to explore all options, including buying and equipping a new vehicle. But, I know there are all sorts of vehicles out there which could, with a little tweaking and adaptation, become the WOW Bus at much lower cost. If you have such a vehicle, or know of one, please get in touch. If you can help in any way, drop me a line at or tweet me at @johnpopham.

Please help to make the WOW Bus a reality.

New York City Housing Authority Digital Van from

Rural Community Broadband Fund


Over the past year, or so, I have been working with James Saunby of Grey Sky Consulting on a number of bids to the Government’s Rural Community Broadband Fund. We’ve been working with communities, local authorities, and other partners in areas which are defined as in the “last 10%” in terms of broadband connectivity. In this context, the last 10% means those areas which are unlikely to be served by the upgrades which are being rolled out via the main BDUK programme, wherein Government, local authorities and the European Union are investing in extending Next Generation Access (connectivity upwards of 24Mbps) beyond the areas deemed commercially viable by the main players. The BDUK programme will bring better connections to those who are located between the 66% of properties judged commercially viable and 90% (on average) of the population.

James and I have been working with communities and partners in Cheshire, Durham, Tees Valley, Kirklees and Cumbria. To date, we’ve had 100% success rate in getting bids through the Expression of Interest Stage, and the only project to have reached contract stage under the Rural Community Broadband Fund is led by Grey Sky in Rothbury, Northumberland (read more about this here). It has been great to work with some of the communities which had been in danger of left behind by the 21st Century, and set them on the road to benefitting from the same new technologies which urban residents now take for granted. It’s not a straightforward task. The technical challenges are one thing; the mindset of people who have never had the internet and don’t necessarily see a reason for having it, is perhaps an even tougher obstacle.

The current round of the Rural Community Broadband fund is scheduled to be the last. And, on Friday last week, we heard that the deadline (originally intended to be 24th May) has been extended to 17th June (although, at the time of writing the website has not been updated to reflect this). This could be the last chance for communities in the last 10% to have a crack at getting greatly enhanced broadband.

So, if you would like to work with James and myself to get better broadband please get in touch. But, do it quickly, there is not much time left.

Our Digital Planet is back on the road

I am very pleased to report that Our Digital Planet will be back on the road shortly. Thanks to the support of Nominet Trust and Wigan Council, we will be in Wigan Town Centre from 24th to 29th May, and then in Leigh Town Centre from 30th May to 2nd June.


When I locked up the Internet Station for the last time in Glasgow last November, a profound sense of loss suddenly hit me. This was a bit of a surprise, but, when I analysed it, I realised it was the constant interaction with people that I was missing; the immersion in their daily lives; the feeling that I was being trusted to listen to their stories, and, above all, the deep feeling of satisfaction at being able to do something which I believed would improve their lives.

This is what gave me a determination and a drive to make sure that we could do more of this. So, almost exactly six months after Our Digital Planet left Glasgow, it will be back on the streets again in Wigan and Leigh. I am so looking forward to getting some of those feelings again and being let in to people’s lives. And I hope we can uncover some more gems, like the gentleman who found a video online of his wife as a babe-in-arms being presented to the young Princess Elizabeth in a Maltese maternity hospital; like the lady who was able to connect with her children in the USA; and, of course like Ron. I make no excuse for re-posting the video of Ron below.

And I want as many people as possible to get involved. If you are within striking distance of Wigan, please come down and visit. If you are able to volunteer some time to help people get online, then that would be fabulous. During the week I hope to be doing some live linkups and letting the outside world in on what we are doing, probably using Google+ Hangout, so, please get involved in that. Oh, and we still desperately need 5 laptops / tablets, if you can help with that.

I am very hopeful that Wigan will be the first stop on a national tour for 2013. For that to happen, we need partners to come forward with funding as well as locations.


Here’s James Winterbottom of Wigan Council talking about Our Digital Planet coming to Wigan and Leigh

Here’s Ron, people like him make all this worthwhile

Social Technology in Later Life – Let’s Have Some Collaboration

This is another post in the series on Social Technology in Later Life on which I am collaborating with David Wilcox, among others, in an exploration initially stimulated by Nominet Trust. David has set out here some issues for the way forward, and I am particularly keen to see how we can promote more collaboration between people and organisations working in this field.

As David has rightly highlighted, during the exploration, there is an inordinate amount of competition between people working in this sector. I have found out through working on Our Digital Planet that older people are still often bewildered by new technologies, and that they are, in many cases, ill-served in this respect, by organisations and agencies that work with them. And there are lots of people beavering away to help them, but they are mainly in isolated pockets, their practice is not well-known, and it certainly isn’t being scaled up in the way it needs to be.

As in several other areas of life, it is the people who most need the benefits new technologies can bring that are least likely to be able to access them. Acute lack of understanding of possibilities among older people and those who work with them is holding back their adoption.

To those of us comfortable with new technologies, it can seem obvious that they can address the loneliness and isolation that afflicts so many older people. But fear and ignorance are big barriers. I have witnessed older people refusing to use free video conferencing with relatives on the other side of the world, and preferring to rely on expensive telephone calls, because they found the video conference experience to be alien to them. This and other experiences suggest two things to me.

  • Firstly, we need to make new technology much more like the items that people are already familiar with. I think this is what Apple are so good at. There are a lot of areas where Apple has seen the opportunity to take concepts invented elsewhere and take them to the next level. They are brilliant at making the user experience of something so straightforward that their product quickly becomes the market-leader (I’m thinking of the iPod and the iPad here). But, of course, Apple stuff tends to be expensive, certainly too expensive for people who are on limited budgets, and for those yet to be convinced that the benefits will be worth the investment. But the way they do video calling is illustrative of my point. They were far from the first on the video calling scene, but the way FaceTime is integrated into the normal telephone call process on the iPhone makes it a much more straightforward experience. Even though using such systems as Skype works pretty well on the iPhone, it entails downloading and running an app which is completely separate from the normal call process, and this is a barrier to many people. If someone has an Apple device (and FaceTime now works on Mac computers as well as mobile devices) they just need to answer a FaceTime call to them to be video chatting instantly. Making a Facetime call is marginally more complex than making a telephone call, but only marginally. I think all tech should be as simple as this, and, it should be cross-platform, so that you could make and receive FaceTime calls to Android, Windows Phone, Symbian, and other devices. This might be a forlorn hope.
  • Secondly, We need to make new technology use a visible part of everyday life so that it doesn’t look like something scary to older people. During the Celebration 2.0 project, I took new technologies into places they might not usually be seen, and I have written before about how I use tech in places like supermarket cafes, parks and certain pubs, where my use has attracted attention and curiosity. An important aim of Our Digital Planet is to make new technologies visible. If people live their daily lives isolated from such uses it will never seem natural to them.

Lots of factors contribute to older people being shielded from new technology uses. Two which I think are particular obstacles are:

  • The professionals and institutions which work with some older people are not comfortable with new technologies themselves. Issues here range from organisations which continue to block use of social media and will not or cannot provide their staff with smartphones, to technophobic frontline staff who pass their fears on to people they work with
  • Younger people who are unwilling or unable to help their older relatives and connections learn from their use. We all know the adage about never trying to teach your partner to drive, at least not if you want to stay together. While working on Our Digital Planet I came across several examples where younger people brought their older relatives in asking us to help them because they hadn’t the patience or had tried and failed. This reinforces the divide and cements the notion that new technologies are a young person’s thing. Younger people quite like the notion that they are part of a cool club which their older relatives can’t join, and older relatives assume none of it is relevant to them.

Resistance to new technologies in this field also means that there is far too little sharing and collaboration, as sharing and collaboration are characteristics of organisations that have embraced social media and new technologies.

Someone needs to take some risks, and pull people together. We need to find and support the digital champions both among older people and among those who work with them. I’m hoping to work with David Wilcox, Steve Dale and others to set the ball rolling. We’re planning a Google Hangout shortly, and maybe a workshop. Let us know in the comments below if you want to be part of this.