Regulators, policy makers, access suppliers in Developed Countries have a considerable pre-occupation with how to bridge “the last mile” i.e. the gap between the common carrier and the end user’s premises. Here in Hong Kong, where I have been for the last few days at a conference, the concern on the part of regulators, policy makers and not incidentally civil society is how to bridge for the “last quintile” – that is the last 20% of individuals in Hong Kong who are not as yet using the Internet.
The exact figure of current Internet users in Hong Kong is in the low 80% range (follow the link to a very interesting set of statistics on Internet use in HK). The exact figures don’t matter very much since it is the explicit policy of the Hong Kong government as per a statement to that effect by the current HK CIO Mr. Jeremy Godfrey. At the very beginning of his opening remarks at the Asia Pacific Regional Internet Governance Forum and repeated again at the beginning of the Hong Kong Internet Governance Forum, Mr. Godfrey committed his government to specific measures, programs and budgets to bridge this last “social mile”, Hong Kong’s last quintile/20% of Internet non-users.
Mr. Godfrey went on to identify a number of the groups which together constituted this “Last Quintile” including seniors, families with low incomes, and the disabled and indicated that programs were currently either underway or planned (and budgeted) for collaborating with the private and the NGO sector in building this bridge. This being Hong Kong, Mr. Godfrey felt compelled to justify this quite remarkable program for social inclusion in the guise of a program to prevent the need as for example in the classroom to duplicate digitally based instruction materials with print materials to accommodate the children of low income families who might not themselves have an immediate home based access to the Internet as a support to their classroom work.
In this regard, the Hong Kong government is in the process of launching a major initiative ($500 million HK$-$65 million USD+/-) to provide subsidized computers to the school age children (410,000) in 300,000 families of low income earners along with an infrastructure of support for training, computer maintenance, and subsidized connectivity.
From a community informatics perspective, it need hardly be mentioned that the commitment to the last quintile is not about the simple provision of “access”. Given the compactness of the Hong Kong as a geographical region achieving effectively 100% “access” is hardly a technological, commercial or policy feat. That the Hong Kong government in contrast to its Developed Country counterparts chose not to rest on those 99.9% “access” laurels but then chose to take on the much more difficult goal of 100% “effective Internet use” and users is truly remarkable.
The HKCSS is a consortium of some 370 NGO’s in Hong Kong who collectively are responsible for the delivery of some “90%” of social services in the city. Among other areas of common support that the HKCSS provides are common technical services through the HKCSS Information Technology Resource Centre including website development and support; email, hardware and software purchasing and support; training; management of corporate technical donations; and technical maintenance, directed by Dr. John Fung.
The HKCSS through its ITRC and its member organizations have taken on the primary responsibility for bridging the last 20% and have begun a series of initiatives in that direction including with Christian Action (the provision of multilingual services for HK’s remarkably diverse and significant ethnic communities), the Senior Citizen Home Society Association ; and the Hong Kong Blind Union (services to the blind).
Since these and other of the HKCSS consortium are working directly as service providers to the various “at risk” groups in HK they are quite familiar with the needs of these individuals overall and by working with John Fung and his team at the ITRC they are provided with the support, encouragement and information that they need to translate the perceived requirements of their constituencies into the facilities and opportunities which might be provided through the use of ICTs and through engagement with and use of the Internet.
Much of this initiative has been pursued through the HK Government funded and HKCSS administered Digital Solidarity Fund. This is an annual grants competition to provide financial support to technical innovations and programs undertaken by HKCSS member agencies as well as non-member social service agencies on behalf of their clients.
The “Last Quintile” initiative and commitment in Hong Kong is particularly remarkable given the way in which virtually all other jurisdictions have failed to systematically proceed beyond the broadly evident plateau at roughly 75-80% of the population who indicate a continuing use of the Internet in Developed Countries. That this should be seen not as a goal but rather as a starting point is something that the rest of the world needs to learn from Hong Kong both from the perspective of social inclusion through digital inclusion but also from the eminently practical requirement that only with universal effective use will it be possible to eliminate the requirement for costly and now obsolete parallel manual systems in many areas of public servicing.