Theresa May, The Opposition and the threat to librarianship

Mass surveillance is a serious threat to the ethical principles of librarianship and the communities we serve. (Image c/o Thomas Hawk on Flickr.)

Despite not being a member of the professional body, one of my current favourite documents (there’s a series of words you don’t often see next to each other) is CILIP’s Ethical Principles for Library and Information Professionals (bear with me). Two elements particularly stick out for me and have become key elements of the presentations I have been delivering lately (and will deliver in the future):

3. Commitment to the defence, and the advancement, of access to information, ideas and works of the imagination.

8. Respect for confidentiality and privacy in dealing with information users.

The post-Snowden era has resulted in a very clear and serious threat to these ethical principles. Indeed, I would argue that we have largely failed in this regard following the introduction of internet access in our libraries (in whatever form the library takes). Under conditions of mass surveillance it is clear: we cannot defend access to information and we cannot ensure the privacy of our users without providing the tools to ensure online privacy – whether that be through the availability of privacy enhancing tech in libraries or through working with users to provide them with the skills and knowledge with which to do so.

The current lay of the land politically suggests that this problem is not about to go away, it is actually going to get much worse. The elevation of Theresa May (presented as a kind of softer One Nation Tory – see here for more on One Nation Conservatism) certainly suggests that the threats we face to our ethical principles are not about to be brushed away, but instead become more pressing. We know that May has a particularly strident approach to mass surveillance, not for nothing was May named “internet villain of the year” at last year’s Annual UK Internet Industry Awards. It seems highly unlikely that upon becoming Prime Minister, May will suddenly abandon a long-held belief in mass surveillance, a policy that is a very serious threat to our ethical principles as outlined by CILIP. The question is, how will we as a profession tackle this threat.

The signs from the forming of Theresa May’s new cabinet are already pretty clear that the pursuit of mass surveillance legislation is very much still on the agenda. Her appointment of Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary reinforces this threat. As Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson will also head up both GCHQ and MI6. Johnson has been an outspoken supporter of May’s drive towards enshrining mass surveillance into law. Only last year he declared in relation to the Snooper’s Charter:

“You’ve got to have a very tough security solution, you’ve got to be absolutely determined to monitor these people. You’ve got to know where they are and who they are talking to.

“I’m not particularly interested in all this civil liberties stuff when it comes to these people’s emails and mobile phone conversations. If they’re a threat to our society then I want them properly listened to.”

I’m not particularly interested in all this civil liberties stuff. And if we are in any doubt that his words match his actions, a quick look at his voting record suggests that he is very firmly pro a strategy of mass surveillance.

As for Theresa May’s replacement, well, I think it will come as no surprise to learn that Amber Rudd is also supportive of the rush to mass surveillance. Generally speaking, where she has turned up to vote, Rudd has generally voted for the “mass retention of information about communications” (or “mass surveillance” if we are to avoid euphemisms). So, both of the key main positions related to the introduction of mass surveillance legislation are very much in the “pro” camp. There is no doubt whatsoever that the government is shaping up to pose very serious threats to our ethical principles, as has been standard practice on the right for some time, ethics are simply a barrier to “progress”. It’s of little surprise to learn that our ethical principles continue to be threatened by a right-wing government, it’s what they do.

But what of the Opposition? Well, it’s not that much better. However, the current attempted coup against Corbyn could result in a unified threat to the ethical principles outlined. Whilst there is not conformity across the Labour Party on this issue (ha), Corbyn at least seems a bit more sceptical of mass surveillance than many of his colleagues. He at least voted to reject the Data Retention and Investigatory Powers Act in 2014 for example. What of the plotters in his party though?

Angela Eagle appears to offer little in the way of opposition in the threat against our ethical principles. Generally speaking, she has voted in favour of the mass retention of information about communications. And what of the other challenger, Owen Smith? Well, Smith has voted consistently in favour of mass retention of information about communications. So, should the coup be successful then it seems pretty clear that both sides of the house will be united in the belief that mass surveillance of the population is necessary. Of course, given the lack of party discipline at present, they will be effectively united even if Corbyn remains as leader because he is unable to command so many of his colleagues. There are really only two options I can see in terms of serious opposition to mass surveillance, the party respecting the wishes of the members and uniting around Corbyn, or mass deselection. Otherwise, mass surveillance is a foregone conclusion and CILIP will need to re-write their core ethical principles – because they will be worthless.

(I feel I should add here by way of caveat…I am not a Labour voter. Nor am I a Labour Party member. I’m not sure Corbyn is the right person to take the Labour Party forward, but I do think his politics are right for the future of the Labour Party. Corbyn may not be the right leader, but he holds the “right” politics. Unfortunately for those seeking to unseat Corbyn, they think both his leadership and his politics are wrong. I think this is a strategic error that will likely end the Labour Party for good. For me, a return to the gentrification of the party to ensure its appeal to the middle class will ensure its final demise in a climate where the working class have been hammered hard. But the fight for the party is not my fight, I am merely an observer.)

Whatever the future holds in this uncertain time, I’d recommend that all information professionals take a good look at those ethical principles and ask the question as to whether they are currently holding true to them. I’d also argue that we need to raise awareness of encryption technologies across the profession and beyond (taking the lead from key figures associated with the Radical Librarians Collective), particularly if we hold that our ethics are worth defending and advancing. We particularly need to be aware of what encryption tools will be effective and which will not, given the proposed legislation heading our way. I hope that CILIP batters the doors of government every single day brandishing those key ethical principles and fights for our profession and the communities we serve. These principles are under serious threat, by both sides, and for the sake of our existence and the sake of the people and communities we support, we must not allow them to become redundant.

Useful Links

Library Freedom Project

Open Rights Group

Privacy International

Crypto Party…in a public library…in the UK

Newcastle Central Library (CC-BY).

Well, this is a turn up for the books. When I wrote my recent article on Snowden and the digital divide I made a few limited recommendations (in hindsight I could have been more extensive in this regard). Having worked in public libraries myself, I was somewhat hesitant to recommend that all public libraries install Tor Browser as the default – I knew (or at least had a very strong suspicion based on working in public libraries) it just simply wasn’t going to happen (in terms of my local library authority, I’ve pretty much had this confirmed). Instead, I kinda vaguely pushed that we as a profession should learn some of the skills and, however possible, share them with our communities (I’ve vaguely started on this road, but I’ve been less than great at doing so). There would be nothing wrong with hosting workshops, even if the tech cannot be the default on the council computers. It’s clear to me there’s an intellectual privacy divide – between those that are able to ensure digital privacy, and those that cannot due to lack of skills, knowledge etc. Libraries, for me, should play a role in bridging this gap. The protection of intellectual privacy is, after all, a core principle underpinning the profession.

I was, therefore, both pleased and surprised to see that Newcastle libraries are working with the Open Rights Group (North East) to run a Crypto Party later this month – the first public library service I am aware of to officially run and deliver one in the UK (if you know of an official library organised event that is comparable, please let me know!). According to the details on cryptoparty.in, they intend on covering:

  • Safe browsing
  • Tor Browser & TAILS
  • Signal
  • Full Disk Encryption
  • PGP

A cursory glance at the website looks promising…the Newcastle library service seem to be giving it a bit of a promotional push as well. It will be interesting to hear how this develops and whether other library services take Newcastle’s lead and teach privacy enhancing tools. It’s something I think we should be doing much more of, rather than leaving the teaching of digital skills to private companies with a vested interest in promoting certain tools and approaches to online engagement. Hopefully others will follow Newcastle’s lead….

The permanence of corporate surveillance

Image c/o Barbara Friedman on Flickr.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the nature of surveillance now as compared to how it operated in the pre-internet era (if we can even imagine such an era even existed). Surveillance is, of course, an age-old technique employed by the state to protect, to control and to manage. In many respects, the Snowden revelations shouldn’t have surprised us in the least. Did anyone really believe that a mass communication tool could be introduced without the state wishing to have a poke around in what was being communicated? Perhaps the only real surprise was the scale. Nonetheless, history provided us with the clues.

However, we can draw a very clear line between the kind of surveillance that was popularly recognised before 2013 and that which has come to light post-2013. The first, and most obvious, point to make is that surveillance has historically been targeted, not indiscriminate. Targets were identified and surveillance approved and conducted. It may be against particular groups, or specific individuals, but it was always targeted. Now, however, everyone’s communications are subject to collection and scrutiny. We are all, to a certain extent, suspects.

The other clear difference is the fluidity of the nature of our surveillance regimes. It is not merely the state that collects vast amounts of data about our activities, the corporate sector also gathers huge amounts of information about what w do, where we go, who we talk to etc etc. This data does not reside securely in the hands of corporations however. We know, following Snowden, that much of the data private corporations collect about our activities is also accessed by the state, either with or without the consent of said corporations. Thus we find ourselves in an environment of what has been described as “liquid surveillance” – a fluid state of surveillance where data flows, particularly between the state and corporations.

But there is a further difference between that which occurred pre-Snowden and that which we know post-2013: the permanence of it. Before the emergence of the internet, the course of surveillance wasn’t always unimpeded.  There were concerns and efforts to limit its scope or even to roll it back. The use of wiretaps in the United States is a good example of surveillance strategies being strongly criticised and, ultimately, rolled back.

Back in the early part of the 20th century, there was outrage about the federal use of wiretapping. This outrage wasn’t restricted merely to the strands of libertarianism on the left and the right (such as the right can be described as “libertarian” when it argues for the replacement of state authority with corporate authority), it cut across the entire mainstream of political opinion. Conservative newspapers were as outraged as the liberal press. The outrage was such that, in 1934, the Communications Act federally outlawed the use of wiretaps (reinforced by a Supreme Court ruling in 1939).

Although these safeguards were whittled away by successive administrations (Democrat and Republican), there was still a sense at the heart of the establishment that surveillance must be limited, at least this was the case publicly if not privately. In 1967, for example, the President’s Commission on Law Enforcement and Administration of Justice stated that “privacy of communications is essential if citizens are to think and act creatively and constructively” (the mere fact that our current government thinks privacy of communication is unnecessary suggests they rather don’t want citizens to think and act constructively…). Privacy of communications is crucial in a democratic society, the fact that this was endorsed by the President’s Commission underlines the extent to which this was hardly a view taken by a few radicals outside the mainstream. It was, to all intents and purposes, a conservative viewpoint on the impact of such intrusions. The big difference now, I think, is I couldn’t envisage such an acknowledgement or a restriction upon contemporary forms surveillance.

The emergence of the notion that information is a commodity has changed all this. In a capitalist society, where information/data has value, where the harvesting of such data can produce profit, corporations are obliged to seek out that commodity, secure it and draw profit from it. Any effort to inhibit this will surely be resisted, both by the corporations themselves, and their allies in the political elite (particularly on the right of course). It is simply not possible to imagine a situation where the current environment is over-turned. Pandora’s box has been opened, there is no way we are going to be able to put everything back inside. Corporate surveillance is, therefore, a permanent state of affairs. It will never face the legislative restrictions that wiretapping faced in the last century. No, it is a permanent fixture because a commodity that drives profit will not ever be restricted so long as capitalist orthodoxy is dominant. Therefore, in a state in which data flows between the state and corporate bodies, it is hard to imagine that surveillance in a capitalist society can ever truly be curtailed.

We may well be able to limit the extent to which the state directly collects data on individuals, but will we ever really halt access to data that we have voluntarily surrendered to profit-making entities on the internet? Is it possible to prevent this in a capitalist society? It seems to me that it probably isn’t. Whilst a large state society results in intrusive state surveillance, surely a free market, “libertarian” society would result in wide scale corporate surveillance (under the guise of being voluntary…”voluntary” being a notion to which right-libertarians have a liberal interpretation)? And as we edge towards an extreme free-market state, won’t such surveillance become permanent and inescapable? Perhaps, under capitalism, corporate surveillance is here to stay?

Interview for El Mundo Web Social

(Full image available CC-BY – ijclark.)

The following interview on communications and radical librarianship was conducted with El Mundo Web Social (you can read the original Spanish version here). Many thanks to Fernando Jerez for approaching me to be interviewed on these topics for his site, it certainly got me thinking about the motivations behind some of the things I do, as well as considering what are, I think, the fundamentals of a good communications strategy.

  1. You are working in a university library. What do you think about the situation regarding adaptation (training) of fellow professionals in terms of social networks?

I think social media has come a long way in libraries in recent years. Whereas there has been some reluctance to engage with the medium in the past, I’d argue that we have moved on significantly in the past couple of years. It is no longer seen as a fringe communication tool that we can ignore if we choose, rather it has become an essential tool in our communications armoury.

That said, there are still some in libraries who, whilst seeing the need for it at an organisational level, don’t see the value of it as a professional tool or as a tool that needs to be on their radar. It’s still seen as fringe in a professional context, even if not in an over-arching organisational sense. There are difficulties associated with this, particularly as social networks help to foster professional discourse and enable the profession to progress in a way that perhaps wasn’t possible before when practitioners were so widely dispersed and often remote. I think it is important to talk about and demonstrate the value of engaging in the medium, but ultimately we have to accept that some will not be converted.

  1. Taking a look at your presentation “Designing a better library experience“, you are talking about some concepts to develop, including ‘commitment’ as the basis of strong, open communication. How do you explain to general managers of libraries the need to increase this investment in online communication?

I think it is vital in the current climate that libraries, institutions and users are brought closer together. I am a great believer in flat organisational structures and I believe that, as much as possible, users should be engaged in the overall running of the service. It’ll take some time to get there, but communication is a key element of laying the foundations to enable such integration to take place. I’d argue that close co-operation between users and the service will create a better service that meets their needs and strengthens the bond between the service and the user.

A stronger bond between the user and the service has a number of positive effects, not least a positive perception of the service by those that use it. Through open dialogue and effective communication we can ensure a powerful relationship that benefits the library as well as the overall institution. However, this must be a two way conversation, it must avoid being hierarchical and must ensure that we learn from those we communicate with as much as they “learn” from us. This is particularly important as social media provides a public forum and such public interactions, if employed effectively, can help to ensure greater collaboration and co-operation with those that use the service. Whether we want to succeed in the terms set for us by a competition orientated, marketised HE, or whether we want to move towards a more cooperative model of library service provision, online communication plays a key role in bringing us closer to the user with the subsequent mutual benefits that brings.

  1. In your articles you speak often of progressive marketisation of services in libraries. Do you think public libraries in social networks are directed to the user ‘as a customer’ or ‘as a citizen with rights’?

I’m very critical of the use of neoliberal terms which act as enablers to a damaging and regressive ideology. As a result, I try to avoid terms such as “customer” as I believe that this is an inappropriate term for the people we engage with in our libraries. The term “customer” immediately creates a barrier between us and the user which then has to be overcome, usually through the use of “marketing strategies”.

For me, as someone who has worked in a retail environment for many years, a customer interacts with a service at a very limited level. I find the use of the term “customer” troubling because the relationship between HE and a student is nothing like that of a “customer” and a retailer. A retailer sells a complete product that the user purchases and uses as they please. In HE the relationship is more of a partnership as we work with students, in co-creation of knowledge to ensure that they obtain the best possible education and ultimately create informed, educated citizens. They don’t buy a good education, because to accrue knowledge is reliant on the user as much as it is on the service provider. It’s a collaboration rather than seller/buyer relationship.

This is also true for public libraries. Public libraries are not there to sell a product to a user, they are about helping to ensure a well-informed, literate citizen that is able to play a full role in the democratic process. Whether this is by ensuring all children have equal access to information resources, or whether it is by tackling the digital divide by providing free access to the internet to ensure everyone has equal access to government as services and information shift online.  Public libraries are not about producing and enabling greater consumption, but in ensuring that, as much as possible, all can engage equally with society and the democratic process.

So, I would argue that at present many are orientated to communicate with users as “customers” but, I would further argue, this is a consequence of a shift in local authority to the belief that profit and consumption are primary concerns whilst engagement in the democratic process and people as citizens being secondary concerns (if it is even on the radar at all). This shift is, in my mind, a direct consequence of the ingrained neoliberal ideology that has corrupted our public services and placed concern for the profit motive above that of the public good.

  1. You’re part of the “Radical librarians” in England (and Voices for the Library too), which emerged from the difficult situation facing public libraries due to cuts from the Government. This movement has a good presence in social media. How do you think you are helping to address the situation from the organized events, blogs and social networks?

The radical librarians movement emerged not just out of the so-called “austerity” agenda here in the UK, it is also a reaction against the increased marketisation of libraries in general,  the gradual corruption of the profession as ethics are abandoned in the hope of remaining “relevant” and a renewed focus on the roots of the profession. We have slowly grown and I think we have seen a slight shift in rhetoric across the profession in general since the emergence of RLC (Radical Librarians Collective), although I am realistic about the extent to which this is the case.

It has not been without its difficulties however. Initially there were many dismissive voices that were dispiriting and challenging to those of us that wished to open up spaces for conversations that had hitherto been hidden. There is also, of course, the danger of burn-out borne of unrealistic expectations of what we can achieve. For me, I think it is vital to ensure that you remain idealistic in thought and deed, but realistic in expectations. I think too often the idealistic can be too optimistic about what they hope to achieve and, in doing so, they run the risk of being exhausted and dispirited if their expectations aren’t realised. I think it is important to understand that building a lasting alternative takes time. What is vital is to build infrastructure, whether that be through gatherings (I don’t like the term “unconferences” but I guess that’s the popular term), journals, blogs and social networks. The building of radical frameworks is crucial to achieve what we want to achieve and our minds should be focused on that rather than outcomes.

In terms of RLC, the journal, social media and the gatherings all lay foundations for consolidation of radical ideas within the profession. By providing a platform for radical ideas, we increase the prospects of the ideas spreading and a clearer understanding of what it is to be radical with respect to the information profession. Before RLC, there was little room for such public discourse. The emergence of RLC not only provides a space for such discussion, but leads to an opportunity for it to spread and take root.

I think, by its nature, the emergence of such groundwork is important as, in the long-term, it helps to address concerns and sows the seeds for radical change. It is a long haul, but a continued focus on infrastructure building is our best hope to challenge the status quo.

  1. Librarians, at the library and the social networks, are working to improve access to information for citizens. People can have more knowledge, but … how to be aware of our freedom to change things, in your opinion?

I think it is vital that we (as librarians) facilitate access to information about alternatives. In the current climate, both politically and professionally, we are beset by the myth of TINA (There Is No Alternative). At a political level, this manifests itself in the belief that “austerity” (government spending cuts) is the only logical path to ensure national and economic wellbeing. In terms of our profession it manifests itself in the belief that the only way to ensure our relevance is to adopt the language and strategies of the market. Anyone seeking to espouse alternatives risks being seen as outdated and failing to acknowledge contemporary realities.

I see it as therefore vital that we facilitate a raised awareness of our freedom to change things. Not only in terms of citizenry but also professionally. The myth that we are neutral is a problem that besets our profession and needs to be overcome. We are a political profession that makes political decisions with every book we purchase and every collection we maintain, because our decisions are filtered through our own beliefs and prejudices. There is an imperative to provide the information required for individuals to form their own judgements. Users must not be steered, but we must ensure that the information sources we facilitate access to are valid and have a solid empirical basis and be wary of the dangers of applying equal weight to all resources. We must also make them aware of the risks inherent in the resources they use, but be mindful of overt intellectual direction. In facilitating such access and ensuring we avoid overt intellectual direction, we empower users and encourage greater intellectual freedom and therefore enable greater awareness of the freedom citizens have to engender change.

We must embrace the political nature of our profession. Realise that our core mission is to provide equality of access to information for all. In terms of our democratic systems, this means facilitating access to state information by guiding people on how they can hold the governing to account through Freedom of Information legislation. It also means giving people the tools to ensure they are protected from state surveillance and an abuse of their privacy.

Teaching these skills can undermine the current structures as people become aware of the methods by which they can protect themselves from the state apparatus, capitalist appropriation of their data and a pernicious neoliberal agenda. Providing such skills can help citizens not only understand how they can initiate change, but also ensures their own freedom. Citizen awareness of our freedom to participate and transform the world should be absolutely central to our profession, for without awareness of such freedoms we cannot ever be truly free.

Engaging students: obtaining and using feedback in libraries and universities

Stuttgart Library (image c/o volzotan on Flickr).

A couple of months back I was privileged to be invited to speak at a CPD25 event in London on engaging with students and obtaining feedback.  As a result of my background in a range of public facing management roles in both the private and public sectors, I was more than happy to share some of my perspectives on this particular aspect of service delivery.  In this case, I was asked to present something on how social media could be utilised in obtaining feedback and engaging with users.

Engaging Students: Obtaining And Using Feedback In Libraries And Universities explored a range of different aspects of university and library engagement with students. As well as my presentation on social media and student engagement, there were sessions on Anglia Ruskin’s Customer Service Exellence (CSE) and “Tell Us” feedback scheme; the University of Leicester Library’s award winning approach to engaging with students and the University of East London’s International Student Barometer.

Anglia Ruskin’s renewed focus on student engagement and obtaining feedback emerged as a result of disappointing student survey results.  Recognising a clear need to act, a working group was formed which ensured that every faculty and support service was represented.  This was an important move as it ensured that staff across the university were engaged and involved in the move to address the survey results.

A number of tools were employed by Anglia Ruskin as a result of the focus provided by the working group.  Amongst them were students acting as ‘mystery shoppers’, visiting the library and completing a survey on their experiences (and paid £15 for their trouble!) and a student charter outlining expectations which is monitored and reviewed across the year.  In 2009, they launched their “Tell Us” feedback scheme which encouraged students to feedback on their experiences of using the library service by completing a form and posting it in one of numerous post boxes placed around campus.

Whilst the response was initially slow, the introduction of webforms and a telephone number (as well as an email address and the paper form) and the promotion of the service during National Customer Service Week, led to a big increase in uptake by students.  The latter in particular encouraged students to provide face-to-face feedback and did much to raise awareness of the scheme.  So much so that, in 2011, over 500 forms were submitted over the course of a week.  Last year, around 500 forms were also submitted over a three day period.

As well as encouraging feedback, Anglia Ruskin also communicated with students to demonstrate that they were acting on the feedback they had received through a “you said…we did” service.  However, as well as communicating the things they did do, they ensured that if they weren’t able to act on the feedback provided, the reasons for their inability to act were explained clearly.  By doing so, it ensured it addressed the potential for a perception that the some concerns were ignored.

Overall, the scheme appears to have been a great success in both obtaining feedback and in engaging with students.  However, Anglia Ruskin do not appear to be resting on the laurels and are conscious of the fact that without ‘freshening’ things up a little, the posters and activity can become ‘wallpaper’ and, as a result, are currently looking at ways in which they can freshen things up.  It will be interesting to see what they come up with!

The David Wilson Library, Leicester University (image c/o AJC1 on Flickr).

Following Anglia Ruskin’s “Tell Us” scheme, Jo Aitkins of University of Leicester Library talked about how an award winning library obtains and users student feedback.  The University’s library team was named as “Outstanding Library Team of the Year 2012” in the Times Higher Education Leadership and Management Awards and so clearly their perspective on engagement and obtaining student feedback was a very valuable one. Indeed, their scores in student surveys (90%) underlined the extent to which other institutions can learn from their approach.

In terms of ensuring that there is a high degree of engagement with students, focus groups are run with departments across the university to talk to students and obtain their feedback. Sometimes the feedback will focus specifically on the department itself, sometimes on the library and that dialogue has, according to Jo, been a big help in understanding the needs of their students and users and, most importantly, taking action to address these needs.

For example, one of the complaints from students was that there wasn’t enough books (a familiar complaint!) so the library invested in a significant volume of ebooks and ran a “more books” campaign, asking students to advise what books they haven’t got and then purchasing them as appropriate.  Again, listening and understanding the problem was not enough, being seen to deal with the feedback was absolutely key to their strategy.  If feedback exercises are conducted without any tangible for the student at the end of the process, the effort put into obtaining feedback is wasted.

Feedback was obtained from students in a wide variety of ways.  The team meet regularly with the President of the Student Union (on a termly basis) to consult on whether the library is meeting the needs of students, library website statistics were analysed to understand what they are using and how and mystery shoppers have also been utilised (students or staff from other university libraries).  They have also introduced “happy cards” which are handed to students when dealing with queries to provide feedback.

As with Anglia Ruskin, Leicester make a concerted effort to communicate with students what they have done to address feedback to ensure both that students are clear on what the Library has done to address the feedback they have received, and to demonstrate that engaging in the feedback process is worthwhile and benefits them.  And, as with Anglia Ruskin, they are aware that there is a need to renew and refresh the approach, employing new techniques to encourage feedback so that it the feedback service isn’t overlooked by students.

Next up, Niru Williams of the University of East London talked about the International Student Barometer.  Whilst this wasn’t directly relevant for my role, it was interesting to hear how UEL ensures that international students are not forgotten about when it comes to feedback and engagement, particularly as they had won the ‘Outstanding International Strategy Award’ at The Times Higher Education Leadership and Management Awards 2012.

In terms of the strategy employed at UEL, the International Student Barometer (ISB) was independently surveyed by i-Graduate which surveys the entire international student journey through a confidential online questionnaire which is customised and adapted according to the needs of each institution.  The information obtained from this questionnaire is then benchmarked globally, nationally and regionally, reviewing all aspects of the student experience.  At UEL, they have also requested that the data is broken down by schools to enable them to clearly identify any issues across the university.

The information taken from the questionnaire then fed into school and service plans, whilst also ensuring that the whole team were engaged and were given ownership of certain aspects of the scheme.  As a result of their work with the ISB, awareness has been raised across the institution of its importance which obviously has a knock-on effect in terms of a greater focus on the needs of international students and resulted in greater engagement in the process by academics and support staff.

After Nia, it was my turn to speak about using social media to engage and obtain feedback.  If you are interested in finding out what I had to say, you can read a bit more about it on my earlier blog post (I’m obviously not going to go into it in great detail here!).

Overall, it was a really interesting and thought-provoking event which gave me plenty to mull over on the way home.  Personally speaking, I think it is so important to do more than just listen to students.  It is all about both engaging with students and also communicating with them in a way to demonstrate that their feedback is listened to and, where possible, action is taken to address aspects of the service that they are not happy with (and if it is not possible to do so, then the reasons why not should be explained openly and honestly).  Engaging with students and creating a truly user-centric library service in higher education has never been more important than it is now given the nature of the environment the government has imposed on all of us.  I don’t like this imposed environment, but whilst we are stuck within it we need to make every effort to ensure that we work closely with students to ensure we meet their needs.

Many thanks to both Peter Williams (UEL) and Judith Wells (Anglia Ruskin) for inviting me along to talk about social media, student engagement and building a better library experience.

Broadband for all? Or the entrenchment of a three tier divide?

This morning, the Communications Committee released its report on the government’s broadband strategy. The report, “Broadband for all – an alternative vision“, was rather mixed to say the least. There was some welcome criticism of the government’s existing strategy as well as some worrying suggestions about what the future might hold for broadband in the UK.

In terms of the criticising the government’s strategy, the committee were particularly unimpressed by Vaizey’s focus on speed rather than spread. Indeed, the (Tory) chair of the committee raised these concerns on the Today programme this morning (Monday). Rather than focus on the provision of super fast broadband for those that can afford it, the committee suggested that it would be more appropriate for the strategy to focus on widening access. A reasonable and welcome suggestion given that there are parts of the country without access at all. It doesn’t seem particularly radical to suggest that maybe we should ensure everyone has access before we start improving the speed of the connection.

Under a section entitled “Principle 1: Reducing the digital divide“, the committee argues that policy should be driven “above all” to (paragraph 64):

“…arrest and ultimately eliminate the digital divide, creating the opportunity to unleash its social benefits for all UK citizens.”

It goes on to highlight the two distinct divides that need to be addressed: access and skills (or first and second order effects).  The two together are absolutely fundamental to the concept of the digital divide.  A focus purely on access would not reduce the impact of the digital divide unless measures are taken to ensure that the equipment can be used “effectively”.  It is encouraging that both aspects of the divide are referred to in the report as policy-makers seem to have a fixation with access alone.  However, the inquiry itself focuses on the issue of access rather than skills, so whilst the need to address skills is referred to, it is not a significant component of this particular report.

The report goes on to outline the benefits of closing the first order divide (paragraph 65):

“..the potential benefits of reducing this divide are inestimable, with effects on, among other things, the ability of individuals to work from home, on the ability of socially isolated people to stay in contact, and ultimately the ability of national and local government to provide public services, even to far-flung, remote communities.”

Furthermore, it goes on to note the evidence provided by Suvi Lindén, former Finnish Communications Minister and Special Envoy for the Broadband Commission for Digital Development (paragraph 66):

“We just cannot afford to provide the same level of care as we are doing now and that people are used to having in Finland. I have quite often said that, for some municipalities that have these elderly people living, for example, 80 kilometres from the centre of the municipality, ‘It is cheaper for you to build up the fibre to this old lady than to take her to live in the city centre in the nursing home.’ It costs what it would cost for the municipality to have her living in the public-provided nursing home for two months.”

However, the report goes on to criticise existing government policy (paragraph 67):

It is not clear, however, whether the Government’s strategy will eliminate the divide between those communities who can and those who cannot enjoy these benefits. This is because, on the one hand, there is no guarantee that the Government will meet their targets; and on the other, the targets themselves are inherently divisive. In concrete terms, they set a course for a UK in which “virtually all homes will have access to a minimum level of service”[55] and in which “superfast broadband should be available to 90% of people in each local authority area.”

As a result (paragraph 68):

Existing government policy will, in effect, widen the digital divide in terms of the first order effects (access).  The relentless focus on providing high speed internet is not the answer to the issue of the digital divide.  Indeed, the likely impact is a widening of the divide and the entrenchment of a three tier divide (I say entrench as there as still some who connect using dial-up – although that figure is rapidly diminishing).  A three tier divide because there will be those that can afford high speed access, those that can afford broadband and those that cannot afford either option, thus developing a two tier internet service.  Those that have access to the high speeds will be at a significant advantage to those who have an internet connection but cannot afford to upgrade.  And as for those without a connection at all, well, they will be left even further behind.  Indeed, the reports hints as much in its final conclusions (paragraph 251):

However, this doesn’t seem to have prevented Ed Vaizey from announcing that superfast broadband will be available to 90% of the UK by 2015.  Presumably in an attempt to distract attention from the criticisms of the report, Vaizey told the Today programme:

“We have set ourselves a target that by 2015, 90% of the country will have superfast broadband,” said Vaizey. “Generally speaking most people define that around the 35 megabits a second (Mbps) speed but we have said that 100% of the country should have access to 2Mbps. To put that in context, for example, if you want to watch the iPlayer on your computer you would need about 1-1.5Mbps.”

He went on to add that he believed that this target would be met, contrary to the conclusions of the Lords committee.  This determination to provide faster broadband comes despite the fact that there are 5.7 million households without an internet connection [PDF] at all.  It is clear that, at present, the focus should be on those without an internet connection at all – something that the closure of public libraries (who play a key role in addressing this divide) will not help to address.

Whilst rightly critical of government strategy, however, the committee also came up with some unusual recommendations for future policy.  In paragraphs 141-143, the committee recommends:

141. We recommend that the Government, Ofcom and the industry begin to consider the desirability of the transfer of terrestrial broadcast content from spectrum to the internet and the consequent switching off of broadcast transmission over spectrum, and in particular what the consequences of this might be and how we ought to begin to prepare.

142. As and when this occurs, and particularly if Public Service Broadcasting channels begin to be delivered primarily through the internet, the case for a USO (Universal Service Obligation), echoing that for television and radio, will become, in our view, significantly stronger.

143. While we do not support the introduction of a USO at present, we do believe that broadcast media will increasingly come to be delivered via the internet. As and when that happens, and particularly in circumstances where this applies to PSB channels, the argument for recommending a USO becomes stronger. The Government should begin now to give this active consideration.

This seems at odds with what is odd with the nature of the digital divide as noted later in the report.  As has been previously established, cost is asignificant inhibitor in having an internet connection at home.  The transfer of all broadcast content to the internet would result in a number of issues that would need resolving.  What would this mean for the licence fee?  But, more importantly, what would this mean for those who cannot afford an internet connection at present? Such a transfer would rely on superfast broadband which the committee argues would be out of the reach of many.  How would we ensure that moving broadcast content online would not financially penalise those who cannot afford such a move?  Would it be subsidised by the state?  Or would the old divides be further reinforced?  It’s hard to argue, given the existing state of the digital divide, that this is a desirable move.

There is no doubt that the committee’s report delivers welcome criticism of existing government strategy and underlines the importance of reducing the extent of the digital divide.  It is clear that the current strategy would entrench the divide and, in effect, entrench a three tier divide – those with superfast broadband, those with a standard broadband connection and those without a connection at all.  However, the proposal to move broadcast content online is troubling.  The implications for such a move are many and there will be particularly concerns in terms of forcing the public to pay for an internet connection to watch broadcast content.  When many are put off from a broadband connection due to the related costs, it is not clear what the outcome would be should such a move take place.  What seems clear is that the digital divide will not only remain a problem that needs tackling, it is likely to get very much worse and increasingly complex.