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Glasgow unplugged

In Townhead Village Hall, above the noise of a crowd of kids in Taekwondo outfits, John Evans explains how the internet changed his life.

The 46-year-old, who has lived Glasgow for 18 years, has been a driver and landscape gardener interspersed with periods of unemployment. Computer classes at this new £2.1 million community centre gave him his first taste of the online world, helped him prepare a CV, got him a part-time Post Office job, and helped him join three online job clubs, whose offers he checks every second day. He likes his work, but if someone makes him a better offer - as he expects - he is ready to take it. He is also in touch with his family back in Manchester via Facebook and Twitter.

He says: "We've got a PC at home, but I never get on it as the boys are into World Of Warcraft. To be honest, I didn't know what broadband was. I'm a dinosaur, me. I've still got an old Nokia phone!"

Built on the site of a long-disappeared printing factory, it took 10 years to make this community centre happen. Paul Irwin, the hall's supervisor, has lots of stories about how, since the grand opening last October, the centre's 15 PCs, with their broadband signal beamed via the Glasgow East Learning Network, have opened doors.

There's Jim, studying for his building site badges, older people seeking company, young people creating CVs, a pair of older ladies getting online shopping lessons, plus start-up social clubs for Glasgow minorities like Afghan United and Africa Alba.

This inner Glasgow estate may be late to the party, but now it's here, and 4312 people have logged in so far. It's a portal to a new world of opportunity.

A quarter of a century old last month, the internet connects and informs Scots citizens, entertains us, gives our businesses channels to unexpected markets, and sweeps aside the centuries-old disadvantages of being a small population in a large landmass on the outer edge of Europe.

But the last 25 years have had their brutal side. The internet has emphasised differences between winners and losers and, in an age of readily accessible data, failure has nowhere to hide. The first phase of the web revolution emphasised economic division. "Digital exclusion" - unwillingness or inability to join the web revolution - has widened the gap between Scotland's mainstream and its dispossessed.

A recent Ipsos MORI poll found that Scotland is home to 13% of all those in the UK who lack basic online skills - a proportion far greater than its 8.5% of the total population.

That statistic equates to lost economic and social opportunity for a swathe of our population, shutting them out from the jobs market, barring them from training, advice and civic participation, cutting them off from a revolution in public services and shopping, and blocking escape from social isolation.

As the speed of change picks up, improving digital participation has shot to the top of Scotland's economic needs and social policy agenda, if not its political priorities, although there are signs of progress. Official Scotland has produced "digital strategies" aplenty, but none have cut through to make digital participation something that Scotland can boast about.

The slack has been taken up by the third sector, which has at least quantified the scale of the problem.

A 2013 study for the Carnegie UK Trust looked at the concentration of the problem in Glasgow. The report, Across the Divide: Tackling Digital Exclusion In Glasgow, makes stark reading.

It found that 60% of Glasgow's lower-income households do not have a broadband connection, as opposed to 45% in the same income bracket in the rest of the UK.

"This is deeply concerning," the report said. "Many of these households could arguably benefit the most from the advantages that the internet can offer … [Glasgow's low take-up is] only likely to widen existing inequalities [and represents] both a symptom and a cause of poverty."

Why are low-income Glaswegians more excluded than Liverpudlians, or Mancunians? According to Evelyn McDowall of the Wheatley Group, the housing, community regeneration and care organisation which gets social housing tenants in disadvantaged parts of Glasgow online, it is down to the "multiplier effect" of "the amount of people in the lowest socio-economic groups; we have a higher proportion of people in that group".

In the UK as a whole, an estimated 24% of the population is offline. In Scotland, that figure is 32%, and in Glasgow it rises to at least 40% - as many as 115,000 households in the city have no internet access.

The Carnegie UK Trust report divides the offline community into "potential users" - the 57% who were interested in getting online some day - and "rejecters" (the 43% who had "no inclination or desire to access the internet").

Across The Divide did useful work in classifying non-users by age and gender, and also discovering the reasons why they were not online. These include preference for "doing things in person/by phone" (20%), having "friends and family go online for me (14%), "it's too difficult to learn" (11%), "it's too expensive" (11%), "different options are too confusing" (9%) and "it's not for people like me" (7%).

Only 37% of Glasgow Housing Association tenants use the internet frequently, well below UK, Scottish and Glasgow averages. However, the Wheatley Group is claiming tangible results from its pilot projects, such as the one in Townhead to get older and more disadvantaged Glaswegians to see the internet as just another utility.

That message is reflected at civic level - not least in Glasgow City Council's "digital roadmap", which claims that unlocking world-class levels of internet participation can secure £650 million of Gross Value Added for the city, create 2800 jobs, and save the poorest 10% of families £270 a year. It can also help the city improve health, education and social care. "For each transaction we move online we can save at least £3.30 to invest in frontline services," the strategy says.

According to McDowall: "I'd like to think that our programmes can make a difference to our tenants.

"Glasgow has very ambitious aspirations to be a digital city and Scotland to be a digital nation. If we don't make inroads into this [excluded] customer group, we won't reach that ambition. If we leave part of the population behind, it just doesn't work."

Townhead Village Hall's bank of PCs - and more importantly, the teachers and trainers who show people how to use them - means that this cluster of high-rise flats is no longer an island in the middle of Glasgow, but a community that shares the same opportunities as anywhere else in the UK. Finding new ways of getting people to use these tools must be a national priority.

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