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Inclusion or Exclusion: Access to the Internet and Public Participation


Inclusion or Exclusion: Access to the Internet and Public Participation
Virtual Society? Programme Workshop
10th November 1999
School of Geography
University of Leeds


The following is a summary of both the presentations and the discussion made at the above workshop. It is not intended as a verbose account of the workshop, but intends to give an overview of the day and its outcomes.



The workshop was introduced by Steve Carver and Sonia Liff, who outlined the programme and the general aims and objectives of the workshop. These are reproduced here:

While the objective of making policy recommendations was felt by all to be rather ambitious, it was generally considered that academic discussion and research was necessary for informed policy debate and decision making. The workshop was attended by twenty one people, mainly from academic institutions. These are listed at the end of this document.


Five presentations were made at the workshop. The general content of these are summarised below. Four of these present work carried out as part of the Virtual Society? programme with one presentation (Andy Hamilton) detailing similar work done elsewhere.


"Gateways to the Virtual Society: Innovation for Social Inclusion"

Peter Watts, Warwick University

This presentation focused on work being done by Peter Watts, Sonia Liff and Fred Steward. This emphasises social factors in the emergence of the information society and therefore stresses the importance of public access points to the Internet. The presentation reported on field surveys of Internet cafes and other community access points, looking principally at three aspects of their use, namely:

The research identifies two basic forms of public access point: 'traditional' consisting of access terminals located in schools and libraries; and new organisations such as Internet cafes, telecottages and electronic village halls (EVHs). These in turn can be categorised as either 'community' access points (i.e. those located in existing social space as a route to some particular goal and with an implicit constituency of users) or as 'shop front' access points (i.e. those located in new social spaces for general use by anyone).

The presentation gave in depth detail on three access points in Guildford, Surrey; two Internet café sites as examples 'shop front' developments (Quarks and CafeNet), and a 'community' site in the existing Age Concern offices. This focused on descriptions of social space, identity, membership, social support and motivation in the context of their role as 'gateways' to the information society. In summarising these different sites, the Warwick group hope to re-draw our views of information society and the role of public access points as a means of social inclusion.


"Reflexive Modernization, Wired Self-Help and the Virtual Middle Classes"

Roger Burrows, University of York

In this presentation reflections were given on social exclusion as process. Key to this theme is the role of reflexive modernisation as defined by Giddens in which choice in the late 20th century is obligatory and to what extent advantage can be gained through access to information by digital means.

Roger Burrows presents four 'stories' of how access to and use of the Internet for self-help in decision making situations has helped people gain advantages over other people in similar situations. The first of these describes how a couple moving to a new town gain systematic advantages in choosing a place to live so as to ensure their children get into the best primary/secondary schools. The second example given is that of preventative strategies that can be followed to circumvent financial hardship, in this case by using postings on Internet discussion groups about mortgage repossession to gain information/leverage to prevent home repossession. The third example is a medical study of how access to very detailed information and discussion/support groups on the Internet can often lead to a patient knowing more about a particular disease or disorder than the doctors who are supposed to be treating them. The fourth and final example is about how self-help discussion forums like uk.people.parents can be used to gain information and advantage in negotiations.

These are all examples of so-called 'glocalisation' (i.e. the global village or global made local) in which traditional face-to-face advice from friends and acquaintances is replaces or augmented by the Internet as a form of 'virtual community care' system.

Burrows concludes that social inclusion is not so much about public access, but about the ability to use the information resource to best advantage. As such the Internet revolution is self-help, communication and social support is very much a middle-class phenomena.


"Web-based GIS for Public Participation in Environmental Decision-Making"

Richard Kingston, University of Leeds

Work was presented here on the development of web environments for encouraging public participation in environmental decision-making. The common theme running through two case studies was the use of Geographical Information Systems (GIS) as a means of presenting map-based information to the public and allowing them to participate in the decision making process.

The first of the three case studies was a local scale 'virtual' village planning example that ran parallel to a "Planning For Real" exercise in Slaithwaite, West Yorkshire in June 1998. In this system, local people are asked to identify local planning issues (e.g. land use, development, traffic, etc.) affecting the village and make suggestions as to what needs to be done. These public inputs are then fed into the planning process for consideration by local authorities. Advantages over the traditional Planning For Real model were described including employment of the 24/7 concept of access, efficiencies in reporting results and the role of multimedia.

The second case study reported was a regional scale national park landscape planning exercise focussing on plans for increasing native woodland in the Yorkshire Dales National Park. Using the system installed at four visitor centres throughout the National Park, visitors and local residents were able to register views about how much woodland to plant and where to plant it. The GIS is used within the system to help people explore the decision problem, experiment with alternative planting scenarios and formulate a final decision. A composite decision map of all the responses gained during the exercise has been lodged with the National park Authority.

Conclusions were presented on the advantages and disadvantages of developing Internet based approaches to public participation. These included presentation of information, access to information and tools to use it, methods of interaction, copyright and legal issues, independence of location, understandability, accountability and public apathy.


"Public Participation using Virtual Reality"

Andy Hamilton, Salford University

This was a demonstration project using Virtual Reality (VR) and the Internet to facilitate public participation in urban design and development. The presentation emphasised the opportunities of VR and the Internet for enhancing public input to the planning process through openness. The system described includes the use of 'Openspace' VR to visualise an urban area and proposed redevelopment through public 'walk arounds'. The system allows the user to post icons into the VR presentation when they want to make a comment about a particular view or development. These then reside in the system and can be downloaded and viewed by other users.

The system described has direct parallels to that developed by Kingston et al. at Leeds in that it emphasises the use of ICTs to open up the planning process to the general public.


"The 'Trickle Down' Approach and its Policy Implications for Universal Service Obligations"

Graham Thomas, University of East London

This presentation examined the potential use of a policy instrument which could be relevant to the alleviation of social exclusion in relation to Internet access). The principle of ‘universal service’ has been a feature of telephony in many countries for many years, although it has not always been formalised. Its aim is to make telecommunications services ‘which are essential to full economic and social inclusion’ available to everybody ‘upon reasonable request … and at an affordable price’. In practice, this has meant geographically averaged prices for telephone connections and other schemes to help poorer, disabled and remotely located customers.

Recent OFTEL consultations have considered (amongst other things) whether to extend this principle to cover access to higher-speed networks in order to speed the diffusion of Internet services. The tone of the July ’99 consultative document, however, was negative. A set of arguments from the OFTEL document was presented and criticised. The underlying rationale for rejecting the extension of universal service to higher-speed networks - the argument that universal service measures are inappropriate for services which are not close to market saturation - was criticised for being historically inaccurate and based on a view of economic development in which wealth, goods and services can be left to ‘trickle down’ from the rich to the poor.

The presentation concluded that while OFTEL is correct to note that increased competition has been successful in diffusing Internet access, that access is not the only problem, and that proactive policymaking is risky and expensive, the consultative document does not make a convincing argument for the rejection of the universal service principle as an instrument of economic and social policy. An extended universal service obligation for emerging technologies which may soon carry essential services would need to be ‘joined up’ with other policies, and there would be problems of implementation, but it should remain a serious option for government.



Subsequent discussion among the workshop attendees was wide ranging and touched on a great many topics within and around the topic of social inclusion and exclusion. Some of the key threads of this discussion are outlined below.

Definitions of social inclusion/exclusion

There was a great deal of discussion as to the general appropriateness of the term/phrase of social inclusion/exclusion. Some people at the workshop thought the whole idea too loaded with Blairite political overtones, while others just thought a more rigorous academic definition was called for.

Public participation

There was also some discussion as to what was meant by public participation (i.e. social inclusion), ranging from definitions of participation (i.e. in what), through mechanisms of participation (i.e. by what means), to goals (i.e. to what end).


Workshop participants

Roger Burrows - University of York
Eileen Carr - University of Huddersfield
Steve Carver - University of Leeds
Ian Couch - University of Huddersfield
Graham Gardner - University of Wales
Tony Gatrell - Lancaster University
Andy Hamilton - Salford University
John Hopwood - Sefton Council
Richard Kingston - University of Leeds
Bernard Leach - Manchester Metropolitan University
Sonia Liff - Warwick University
Clodagh O'Donnell - Wellcome Trust
Jayne Rogers - University of Leeds
Chris Stokes - Newham College
Graham Thomas - University of East London
Steve Toole - University of Westminster
Nigel Trodd - Salford University
Jo Twist - University of Newcastle upon Tyne
Peter Watts - Warwick University
Gamini Wedande - University of Bristol
Xiaonan Zhang Salford University


The workshop was organised by Steve Carver of the Public participation in local decision making: evaluating the potential of virtual decision making environments project, funded under the ESRC's Virtual Society? Programme.



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