Books written by Ray Sullivan

Sunday, 31 March 2013

On-line Services Need Off-line Logic

In the late 1960s the UK made the first faltering steps towards decimalisation.  I was just a kid and remember my teacher in what would now be called sixth grade but was just 'Junior 4' to me then, holding up some pre-decimalisation coins and explaining that we were going to get new coins to replace them.  I was fired up; at ten years old I was quite bored with the shillings and florins, not to mention the half crowns that I'd had virtually no exposure to.  This was new coinage and I had visions of triangular shaped coins to herald the new era in.

Of course the new coins weren't that radically different to what went before, in the final analysis, but the way of counting was.  Out went the old 240 pennies to the pound, in came the new-fangled 100.  It was a time of change and I grew up understanding the old and the new currency systems quite well, not that the old guinea based concepts had much practical use once we'd changed over.  We did the same with metrication at the same time and that did help as for much of my RAF career I worked on aircraft that used imperial and metric measurements, so interchanging between them was a common event.  It was the younger, post metrication, engineers who struggled with the imperial stuff.

But with decimalisation it was the older folk who struggled as they tried to reconcile a lifetime of working in pounds, shillings and pence and the toll on some was just too much.  As decimalisation became a reality in the early 1970s, when I was in secondary school, I remember reading about the oldies who just couldn't cope and had sadly ended it all.  I suspect that in many cases there would have been other underlying reasons for taking their lives, but probably none that would sell newspapers.

Today that generation of oldies are largely gone, we're forty plus years down the line and nobody realistically harks after the old money.  Today's decimalisation and metrication challenge is the use of computers.  It's hard to imagine that computers present a difficulty to anyone anymore, given that we've all been using them for thirty years, right?  Well, actually, a lot of people haven't.

First off, access to the technology was costly in the early days and in fact that barrier continued for a good fifteen plus years.  It was only geeks, nerds and me who seemed prepared to put their hands deeply into their pockets back then.

Then there was the underpinning technology - not terribly different from today's but not as well disguised.  Back in the early days of computing and, in fact, up until comparatively recently, you needed to deal in ones and noughts, arcane hexadecimal numbers or in meaningless technical jargon to use the blighters.  I've long advocated that computers should be like TV sets in that you pull them out of the box, plug them in and they work.  I believe we could have had true plug and play a lot sooner than we did but that would have meant the software designers going an extra mile.  And programmers, a breed apart, just don't understand why someone wouldn't want to type a line of perl instead of just clicking on an icon.

So there is a generation of older persons in the UK who missed the digital bus.  Not all, by a long chalk, and many of today's retired greys were the driving forces behind the technological revolution that we all use today.  But society is full of different people, with different skills, knowledge and abilities and many feel that computers are somehow complicated (and to be fair, underneath, they are) and that they couldn't possibly learn how to use one at their age (add any number above and including 45 in here and you're probably still excluding some younger people in this group).

So, in the UK and I'm guessing most of the developed world, there is a core of people who do not feel comfortable with computers.  Of course this is a social issue that we all should try to help out with - volunteer  assistance, provide free training or perhaps just cut those with poor IT skills a bit more slack than many of us do.  Now it appears that many of the people who are less likely to be good with computers are the ones who need access to government services - the elderly, the unemployed and those with issues that the social state deal with.  Unfortunately the government is making it harder to interact with it by any means other than through computers, which disenfranchises those with the most need in many cases.

The reasons are obvious - it's estimated that every face to face enquiry costs the taxpayer £8.62, a telephone enquiry as little as £2.83 but it's the on-line enquiries that make the most savings coming in at 15 pence a pop.  That's one shilling and twopence in old money.  The estimate is that the move to 'digital by default' will save the taxpayer - that's me and you, unless you happen to be Amazon, Google or Starbucks of course - about £1.2bn  a year, rising to £1.8bn long term.  That's a lot of savings, but at a very real human cost.

I can understand the government wanting to save money - and the Civil Service cuts must mean that there's less people to talk to anyway - but it shouldn't be at the expense of those who do not understand computers and probably don't have access to the technology.  Some of the £1.2bn savings needs to be redirected to providing meaningful training and access to on-line services and, at least for the current generation of oldies, preserve some access to face-to-face information to help them.  Let's face it, with appropriate education and assistance then the long term gains will pay for themselves anyway.


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