Why the digital divide matters for children’s future prospects

By Steven McGinty

One of the biggest myths of modern times is that all children and young people are ‘digital natives’. That is, they have developed an understanding of digital technologies as they’ve grown up, rather than as adults. But this view has been heavily contested, with research highlighting that young people are not a “homogeneous generation of digital children”.

In the media, the issue is rarely given attention. Instead, news reports focus on the use of futuristic technologies in the classroom, such as East Renfrewshire Council’s recent announcement of their investment of £250,000 in virtual reality equipment. The less spoken truth is that many children and young people are leaving school without basic digital skills.

In 2017, the Carnegie Trust UK published a report challenging the assumption that all young people are digitally literate. They highlighted that as many as 300,000 young people in the UK still lack basic digital skills, and that although more are becoming digitally engaged, the division is deepening for those that remain excluded.

In particular, the report highlighted that vulnerable young people are most at risk, such as those who are unemployed, experiencing homelessness, living in care, in secure accommodation, excluded from mainstream education, or seeking asylum.

Research by the UK Digital Skills Taskforce has also found that many young people lack digital skills. However, an arguably more worrying finding from their study was that 23% of parents did not believe digital skills were relevant to their children’s future career success. This suggests that digital literacy is as much associated with socio-cultural values as to whether you are Generation X or Generation Y.

Similarly, the CfBT Education Trust examined the digital divide in access to the internet for school students aged five to 15. It found that children from households of the lowest socio-economic class access the internet for just as long as those from other backgrounds, but they are significantly less likely to use the internet to carry out school work or homework. As a result, the report recommended that interventions should not focus on improving access but rather ensuring that students are using technology effectively.

Further research by the CfBT Education Trust found that only 3% of young people did not have access to the internet, and suggested that schemes which provide students with free equipment are in danger of wasting resources.

Many believe digital skills are essential for academic success. This includes the House of Lords Select Committee on Communications, who in 2017 recommended that digital skills should be taught alongside reading, writing and mathematics, rather than in specialist computer science classes.

Research, however, is unclear on the digital divide’s impact on educational performance (for example, research has shown that smartphone use has no impact on education attainment). But teachers are concerned about their pupils, and in a 2010 survey 55% of teachers felt that the digital divide was putting children at a serious disadvantage.

However, there are organisations offering hope to young people. For instance, Nominet Trust’s Digital Reach programme is working with leading youth organisations to increase digital skills amongst some of the UK’s most disadvantaged young people. Vicki Hearn, director at Nominet Trust, explains that:

Digitally disadvantaged young people are amongst the hardest-to-reach and we need new models to engage with them to disrupt the cycle of disadvantage and exclusion. Our evidenced approach gives us confidence that Digital Reach will have a tangible impact on the lives of those who have so far been left behind.”

Final thoughts

Whether someone has digital skills or not is often a mix of their socio-economic class, cultural values, and even personality traits. However, if everyone is to prosper in a digital society, it will be important that all children and young people are encouraged to develop these digital skills, so they can utilise the technologies of tomorrow.


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Reimagining travel: how can data technologies create better journeys?

Light-streamed highways heading towards the city

By Steven McGinty

From steam trains to electric trains, bicycles to Segways, the transport sector is constantly innovating. Although much of the excitement revolves around high profile developments in self-driving vehicles and private space travel, there are many up-and-coming technologies that could make a great deal of difference to both transport professionals and the average traveller.

The driving force behind these innovations is data.  By gathering, analysing, processing and disseminating travel information, we can make better use of the transport infrastructure we have around us. Developing new technologies and business models that use transport data in innovative ways will be key to improving journeys and creating real benefits.

Managed Service Providers (MSPs)

Many companies – such as Masabi and Whim – currently offer ‘mobility-as-a-service’ apps that allow travellers to compare journeys on different modes of transport. Travel agents purchase tickets in bulk and monitor real time travel data from airports and other transport operators. And travellers can use ‘digital wallet’ services such as Google Wallet to store their tickets in their smartphones. However, these services can be complex to navigate, and don’t always offer travellers the option to update or change their tickets in real time. The MSP concept involves utilising the transport infrastructure that’s currently in place, but also providing travellers with the flexibility to change their planned journey if conditions change e.g. cancellation of a service.

There is also the potential for ‘insured travel’, where MSPs could guarantee that a traveller reaches their destination by a specific time. This, according to professional services firm KPMG, would be more complex, as it would require using big data analytics to estimate the risk of delay and pricing the journey accordingly. In Holland, travellers are already able to purchase insurance along with their railway ticket to Schiphol Airport. If a train is delayed – resulting in a traveller missing their flight – the rail operator will book them onto the next available flight.

Data and traffic management

The development of ‘connected cars’, which transmit real time location data, and greater coordination between smartphone and satnav providers, will mean that transport professionals will increasingly have access to a wide variety of travel information. As a result, a more ‘holistic approach’ can be taken to traffic management. For instance, public sector road managers could group drivers by certain routes, in order to avoid or worsen traffic congestion problems.

Cloud Amber is one of the most innovative companies working in this area. For example, their Icarus passenger information and fleet management solutions enable professionals to view real time locations of all vehicles within their fleet, integrate traffic congestion into predicting vehicle arrival times, and create reports replaying vehicle journeys.

Flexible resourcing at airport security

Gatwick Airport has been involved in trials which monitor data and gather intelligence on the traffic conditions which may affect passenger arrivals. KPMG have suggested that combining data on current travel conditions with historic data could lead to airports becoming better at predicting the demand at the arrival gates. Having this knowledge would support airports in providing appropriate staffing levels at arrival gates, which means fewer queues, and a better experience for travellers.

Public / private collaboration

Sir Nic Cary, head of digital transformation at the Department for Transport (DfT), has highlighted the need for the public sector to embrace new ways of working or ‘risk being led by Californian-based software companies.’

In his keynote speech at a recent infrastructure conference, he explained that the public sector needs to get more involved in digital transformation and to have a greater focus on user needs and working collaboratively.

As a good example of this, Cornwall Council recently engaged Idox’s digital agency Reading Room to look at how digital services could encourage existing car drivers to use public transport in a sustainable way. There was a particular interest in engaging with 18-25 year olds.

Cornwall is a county where over 78% of all journeys are taken by car – with only 1% of journeys taken by bus and 3% by train. Following Government Digital Services (GDS) guidelines, Reading Room embarked on a series of activities to understand how public transport is perceived by Cornish citizens.

The user research explored barriers discouraging them from using public transport; online/digital tools they may use already to plan journeys; and their experience of public transport. Reading Room also reviewed and made recommendations to the council around the brand proposition for public transport. The user insights are now being taken forward by the council.

Security implications

There is, however, a risk in integrating data technologies into transport systems. For instance, smart ticketing, traffic lights, signage, and automated bus stops, are just some of the technologies which present potential opportunities for malicious hackers, or those looking to commit acts of terrorism.

Last year, San Francisco transport systems suffered a cyber-attack, where hackers demanded the city’s transportation agency pay 100 Bitcoin (about $70,000). The incident had no impact on the transport system, but over 2,000 machines were hacked. As a precaution, the agency shut down the city’s ticketing machines, which led to customers being able to travel for free.

Final thoughts

Improving how people get from A to B is one of the key challenges for cities. If data technologies can play even a small role in creating better experiences for travellers – by providing more reliable and flexible journeys – then the transport sector and the public sector should look to invest and create partnerships which encourage innovation.


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Smart-eco cities: how technology is addressing sustainability challenges in the UK

Looking down on densely packed buildings of New York

By Steven McGinty

As cities realise the need to improve sustainability, many are turning to innovative technologies to address challenges such as traffic congestion and air pollution. Here, the ‘smart agenda’, with its focus on technology and urban infrastructure, overlaps with the ‘sustainability agenda’ – usually associated with energy, waste management, and transport.

In 2015, an international research project – coordinated by the University of Exeter and involving teams from the UK, China, the Netherlands, France, and Germany – was launched to investigative how smart-eco initiatives can be used to promote the growth of the green economy. As part of this work, the report ‘Smart-eco cities in the UK: trends and city profiles 2016 was published.

Below we’ve highlighted some interesting case studies from this report.

Glasgow

Glasgow’s smart city approach has been described as ‘opportunistic’ (as opposed to strategy-led) by the report’s authors. New initiatives are often linked to creative organisations/individuals and competition funding, such as Future City Glasgow, which was awarded £24 million by the Technology Strategy Board (now Innovate UK).

Nonetheless, this has helped Glasgow become a smart city leader, not just in the UK, but globally.

Almost half of the £24 million Innovate UK funding was spent on the Operations Centre, located in Glasgow’s east end.  The new state-of-the-art facility integrates traffic and public safety management systems, and brings together public space CCTV, security for the city council’s museums and art galleries, traffic management and police intelligence. As well as helping the police and emergency services, the centre can prioritise buses through traffic (when there are delays) and has recently supported the Clean Glasgow initiative, a project to tackle local environmental issues, such as littering.

Intelligent street lighting was also a major part of Future City Glasgow. Three sections of the city have been fitted with new lighting: a walkway along the River Clyde; a partly pedestrianised section of Gordon Street; and Merchant City, a popular retail and leisure district. The new lighting includes built-in sensors which provide real-time data on sound levels, air quality, and pedestrian footfall. ‘Dynamic’ lights, which use motion sensors to vary lighting – increasing levels when pedestrians walk by – have also been introduced.

London

London’s smart city programme is linked to the challenges it faces as a leading global city. Its need for continuous growth and remaining competitive has to be balanced with providing infrastructure, services, and effective governance.

The Greater London Authority (GLA) is behind both the strategy, through the Smart London Board, and the practical delivery of various activities. Much of their work focuses on encouraging collaboration between business, the technology sector, and the residents of London. For example, the London Datastore, which includes over 650 governmental (and some non-governmental) data sets, plays an important role in ensuring the city’s data is freely available to all. Visitors can view a wide variety of statistics and data graphics, on areas such as recycling rates, numbers of bicycles hired, and carbon dioxide emission levels by sector.

In 2014, the Smart London District Network was established to explore how technology could be used in four regeneration projects: Croydon; Elephant & Castle; Imperial West; and the London Olympic Park. To support this, the Institute for Sustainability was commissioned to run a competition asking technology innovators to pitch innovative ideas for these projects. Winners of this competition included the company Stickyworld, who created an online platform which supports stakeholder engagement through a virtual environment, and Placemeter, who developed an intelligent online platform which analyses the data taken from video feeds and provides predictive insights.

Manchester

Recently, the City of Manchester Council consolidated their smart city initiatives into the Smarter City Programme. The Smart-eco cities report explains that the programme draws on the city’s 2012 submission to the ‘Future Cities Demonstrator’ competition, focusing on the development of Manchester’s Oxford Road ‘Corridor’ around five main themes:

  • enhanced low carbon mobility
  • clean energy generation and distribution
  • more efficient buildings
  • integrated logistics and resource management
  • community and citizen engagement

Manchester’s approach to becoming a smarter city involves a wide range of partners. For instance, Triangulum is a €25m European Commission project involving Manchester and two other cities (Eindhoven and Stavanger) to transform urban areas into ‘smart quarters’.

In Manchester, the council-led project will integrate mobility, energy, and informations and communications technology (ICT) systems into the infrastructure along the Corridor. It will introduce a range of technologies into assets such as the University of Manchester Electrical Grid, with the aim of showing their potential for supplying, storing and using energy more effectively in urban environments. Data visualisation techniques, based on the use of real-time data, will also be developed.

In 2016, Manchester launched CityVerve, a £10 million collaborative project to demonstrate internet of things technologies. The project will involve several smart city initiatives, including:

  • talkative bus stops, which use digital signage and sensors, to provide information to passengers and provide data to bus operators on the numbers waiting for buses
  • air quality sensors in the street furniture
  • ‘Community Wellness’ sensors in parks, along school and commuter routes, to encourage exercise
  • a ‘biometric sensor network’, to help people manage their chronic respiratory conditions

Final thoughts

There is great excitement about the potential for smart city technologies. However, as is highlighted by the smart-eco cities report, many are limited in scale, short term, and based on competition funding. If we want to create sustainable cities, which meets challenges of the future, greater investment will be needed from both public and private sector.


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Future City Glasgow: successes, challenges and legacy

By Steven McGinty

In 2013, Glasgow City Council won £24 million worth of funding from Innovate UK (formerly the Technology Strategy Board) that would see the city become a ‘living lab’ for smart city projects.

Although Glasgow has been more synonymous with low life expectancies (the so called ‘Glasgow Effect’) and urban deprivation, the funding was intended to transform Glasgow into a world leading smart city, with the technologies piloted by Glasgow eventually being used in other cities.

The projects proposed by Glasgow City Council were designed to explore innovative ways to use technology and data to make the city ‘safer, smarter and more sustainable’.

However, three years on, with the majority of the work complete, has the programme been a success?

Managing a future city

From the beginning, Future City Glasgow set out an ambitious programme for change. However, it wasn’t just the experimental nature of the technologies or implementing them in such a short space of time which caused challenges. The programme also had an important role to play in the security of the 2014 Commonwealth Games – a major international event for the city.

Just under half of the programme’s funding was spent on a new state-of-the-art Operations Centre,  integrating traffic and public safety management systems, and bringing together public space CCTV, security for the city council’s museums and art galleries, traffic management and police intelligence.

Although this has required significant investment, the centre has enabled Glasgow to take a ‘proactive’ approach to traffic management and public safety. Video analytics tools, for example, provide operation centre operators with better information to help respond to emerging events. And traffic operators have control over the city’s signalling, allowing them to prioritise late-running public transport. CCTV cameras have also been upgraded to full HD, providing better images for operators and an important source of evidence for Police Scotland.

Demonstrator projects

A major part of Future City Glasgow’s work has been introducing a number of demonstrator projects. According to Gary Walker, programme director at Future City Glasgow, these focus on four main themes: energy; active travel (encouraging people to walk and cycle); public safety; and transport. Some of the most notable projects, include:

  • Intelligent street lighting – the Riverside Walkway has lighting which switches on when people walk by, and Gordon Street has lighting which provides real time data on noise levels, footfall, and air pollution.
  • Sensor technology in retrofitting – low cost sensors (the BuildAx and the Eltek GC-05) have been deployed in buildings throughout Glasgow to evaluate the impact of insulation projects.
  • The Glasgow Cycling App – an easy to use platform has been created to encourage cyclists to share their experiences of cycling and to generate data that could help citizens plan journeys or highlight areas the council should target for improvement.

The challenge of data

Much of Future City Glasgow has been underpinned by data sharing – including traffic data gathered by the Operations Centre and citizen-generated data from the Glasgow Cycling App.

However, ‘freeing’ this data proved challenging, as sharing data went against the traditional working culture of local government. As Gary Walker explained to the Guardian newspaper:

“Change can be challenging – especially when you are driving something that appears to contradict everything you’ve had drummed into you for years. Initially, organisations were nervous when we asked them to release their data because people know they must protect it. But once they realised that we were not asking for sensitive or personal data they began to relax a little and appreciate the value in creating a data hub.”

After some awareness raising and reassurance, the Glasgow Data Launchpad, a publicly available repository for the city’s data, now has over 400 datasets from 60 organisations, including Glasgow City Council, Glasgow Life (which delivers cultural, sporting and learning activities on behalf of Glasgow City Council), and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP).

Looking to the future

As Gary Walker noted at a recent Smart Cities event, Future City Glasgow has received a lot of international interest. The programme has also won a number of awards, including:

  • Winner – Geospatial World Excellence Awards 2015
  • Winner – NextGen Digital Challenge (Digital Innovation) 2015
  • Winner – Holyrood Connect ICT (Innovation) 2015

However, it’s important that the city doesn’t become complacent and continues to progress with smart city initiatives. Alan Robertson, in an article for Holyrood magazine, suggests that financial pressures facing local councils may put initiatives in jeopardy. For instance, he highlights that Glasgow City Council leader Frank McAveety has warned that the city faces “impossible budget cuts”.

There are, however, some positive signs that work will continue. Last year, the Scottish Government introduced Smart Cities Scotland, a new programme which aims to make Scotland’s cities more efficient and greener, and more attractive to potential investors. The programme received £10 million in European funding and will involve a collaboration between Scotland’s seven cities and the Scottish Government.

Final thoughts

Future City Glasgow has had many successes since it was launched three years ago. Although Smart Cities Scotland promises less funding, Future Cities Glasgow has provided the smart city infrastructure capable of supporting new projects.

In terms of driving growth, it will also be interesting to see how Glasgow City Council responds to new forces within future cities, including disruptive business models and technologies, such as controversial tech companies Uber and Airbnb.


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