Telecommunications, Internet, Intranet and multimedia, all part and parcel of what is referred to as 'the information age', has certainly been the hallmark of the 90s. The exponential growth of the Internet and its rapid progression into mainstream business, education, government and the like has stunned even those directly involved in this burgeoning industry. Companies, often starting in computer buffs' lounge rooms, are posting billion dollar profits riding high on the crest of this information revolution.
People of all ages are keen to take advantage of the latest advances in this technology. On a per capita basis, Australians are very much at the forefront for linking into the World Wide Web. Many Councils, large and small, now have their own web pages, often liaising with local tourism, business and community sectors to boost economic and social opportunities for their residents. Numerous Council libraries are assisting users to become more familiar with the Internet and other telecommunication developments.
Use of information kiosks linked to Council services, the ability for residents and ratepayers to do business with Council electronically, Intranet systems to enhance organisational communications and staff development, call centres to streamline residents' queries or complaints, plus state of the art software to maximise service delivery and management practices are all being taken up by Councils.
Given the rapid development of this industry, Councils are also very aware of the need to strategically plan for upgrades as new and enhanced products come on the market. However, within this 'brave new' information age there is the issue of the 'information rich' and 'information poor'. The ability for all groups in the community to be part of, and benefit from, the latest developments must be taken on board. Groups in the community not able to link into new and expanding sources of information will become even more marginalised.
As digital television is introduced households will no longer require a PC to access the Internet. At the same time, Councils wishing to use this avenue for closer communication with their residents and ratepayers must be aware that for a range of reasons some people will not have access. Reasons ranging from economic disadvantage, fear of the unknown, poor literacy levels or lack of motivation will leave some people reliant on traditional means of communication.
Youth and many older people, notably those involved in mature age learning, have taken to this new technology in droves. However, it is not only the disadvantaged but the middle aged sector, particularly those whose jobs do not demand daily use of computers, who are missing out.
Knowsley Metropolitan Borough Council in the UK is being proactive in ensuring as many of its residents as possible can access this new technology from the comfort of their own homes. Across the UK, PC ownership is around 20% of households. However, as a socially disadvantaged area, this figure would be much lower in Knowsley.
Through its Community Information Program, Council is working in partnership with a private sector firm to provide infra red keyboards free of charge to all households. These are used to convert televisions into a PC. With over 95% of households owning a television and most of the area cabled, Council estimates that 60,000 of its households will soon have Internet access.
Council has a clear objective in regard to its Community Information Program. That is 'that the people and businesses of Knowsley should be equipped with access to modern information and learning systems to educate, inform, equip and empower them to participate fully in the modern economy and enjoy an improving quality of life'.
Councils across Australia should similarly be developing strategies to ensure their residents and ratepayers do not become part of the 'information poor'.