Transcript of Martha Lane Fox interview with BCS

July 2011

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Interview Transcript

What is Race Online?

Race Online 2012 is a partnership programme. It was something that we launched in March of this year because, surprise surprise, I wasn’t given any money for my enormous task of getting all the people who’ve never used the internet in the UK with the skills to be able to do so. So, the best thing was to piggy-back on other people’s resources, and that’s what the Race Online 2012 partnership is about.

Why should companies get involved?

I think there’s a number of reasons why companies should embrace Race Online. The first one is that there are nine million people in this country who have never used the internet, and I think that that is creating a big divide between people who understand the many things that you can now do via the web and the people who don’t. And that is a kind of moral and important social justice case, so, just because it’s a good thing to do.

But, perhaps even more importantly for the commercial sector right now, those are nine million people who are consumers, who are potential users of technology, and I would argue that all companies that have anything to do with technology are to benefit if more people are able to use those technologies themselves.

How do you think the internet can improve people’s lives?

Uh, it’s, you know, too many things to mention now. I think that it’s now practically ingrained in everybody’s lives who has it. And, you know, speaking personally, my life was transformed due to the internet. Firstly, because I managed to co-found a successful business, which clearly changed my life, but also post-a hideous car accident, provided me with lots of the tools to be able to live much more easily than I would have done before.

So, on a personal level it’s transformational. I’ve also now met so many people who have been able to get more employment by being online, who’ve built new skills, gone into different kind of education by being online; and, crucially, all the numbers show that even the poorest families save up to £270 a year when they’re on the internet. And is a number that, right now, we just can’t afford, literally, to ignore.

How do you see the internet developing over the next 10 years?

I look into my crystal ball.

Well, I think that, you know, actually what’s interesting about the last 10 years, you know, we started in 97/98, is that some things have happened a lot more rapidly and some things have gone a lot more slowly. So, Brent, my co-founder, used to talk all the time about, kind of, location-based mobile services, and actually it’s really only in the last year that I would say that that has begun to kick in big-time, and I think that’s something that you’ll see just grow and grow and grow.

I also think this idea that everything will become a much more intelligent device. So, at the moment, you know, already the internet is being diffused through lots of different things, whether it’s your smartphone, your iPad, your tablet, your computer, your TV; and I think you’ll see even more devices becoming intelligent. Maybe your fridge, maybe even your car, maybe other things that you have in your home, so that might be another big trend.

But, probably the most exciting one for me and the one that I’m most interested in, perhaps unsurprisingly with the Race Online 2012 campaign, is all the things that will happen that we don’t yet know: the things that will be invented, the businesses that can be created, the ways that we will use these tools that we have no idea about. But that’s why we’ve got to strive to get it to as many people as possible.

How do you use the internet?

I can’t even answer that question because I feel that I’m not ever divorced from it. It’s everywhere in my life, you know. I love reading books, but I often read them on my iPad. I consume masses of news media, but I predominantly consume it via a screen. I’m not a complete kind of cyber-geek, but I do use technology for everything. I hate going into shops, so I buy most things online.

I, you know, look for news, I watch programmes, on social networks I communicate with my friends. What I find is that it takes some of the boring stuff out of life so that you can enjoy the real moments even more. The organisational hassles get completely blown away by using the internet, and it means you can spend more time seeing your friends physically, going to the theatre... doing the fun stuff.

What are your thoughts on professionalism in IT?

I think that the UK has a real opportunity to be at the forefront of digital technologies. You know, the creative industries in this country are very, very strong. We’ve got an incredible gaming industry, we’ve got a pretty rich software development sector, we’re now beginning to have some real kind of hubs of technical expertise around universities.

But all of that has to be wound up in a professionalism around this broad area of technology, both in order to package it up, sell it, make sure that we’re contributing to the economy, but also to make sure that the products and services are robust on a global stage. So, professionalism is vital if we want the UK to compete, and I think that we have a real ability to do so in the UK.

Is there a quick win to better enable the information society?

I don’t think it’s one thing, unfortunately, I think that it’s a bunch of stuff in parallel. I think that we need to continue to improve our networks, whether wireless, fixed line or whatever they might be, continue to drive down price points so that even the most economically disadvantaged people can afford to have the access to the internet.

I think we need to do a much better job of joining up the infrastructure that the government has already invested in in communities, whether that’s in libraries, or GP surgeries, or the extended schools network. Crucially, I also think we kind of need to engage people power in all of this.

All the people I’ve met who’ve recently come online have got online because somebody who they trust has told them all about the amazing things they can do there; and, you know, if I’m looking at the people I know who are offline - my own father!

You know, I’m doing my best, but he is still basically a bit of a refusenick. What gets him is when I show him what he really loves and how much better it can be online: gardening, he searches for bulbs, he’s an ancient historian looking for information. So I think engaging that kind of big network of everybody spreading those skills is also absolutely vital.

What should government be doing?

Well, I think that’s what governments should be doing. They should be joining up local community ICT infrastructure, I think they should be working out ways to encourage local digital champions even at the very individual level, and I also think that they’ve got to be absolutely brutal about getting their own house in order and delivering brilliant digital services.

So I’m working at the minute, looking at how the government does lots of things online, and one of the big areas that, you know, government is still yet to really get right is the delivery of fabulous online-only services.

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