Actions to bridge the digital divide on the ground


Overview of the situation

The European Commission is monitoring all Member States on their public policies and this introduction is mainly based on an extensive report called "Public strategies for the Information Society of the Member States of the European Union" (ESIS, 2000). Compared to other member states in the EU, France was late to introduce a global strategy on the Information Society. It is only in the beginning of 1998 that the government released an action plan to "prepare the entry of France in the Information Society". The plan looked at every sector what the key issues and priorities were and what concrete measures had to be completed. It had six priorities: Education, Culture, Public services, regulatory framework, companies and industrial and technological innovation and it is reviewed every year. An impressive website about all aspects of the plan has been created ( and contain a list of all Internet access points (public/cyber cafés, unstaffed kiosks, etc.) available in France. Related to this paper, some measures of the plan are particularly interesting. One action of this plan was the creation of a yearly Internet Festival (Fête de l’internet) that promotes and celebrates the use of Internet. This festival has been reproduced all over Europe now. Of course, it promotes the connection to the web of schools, along the training of teachers and a better access to public services through Internet, things that are now part of eEurope action Plan. A specific aspect might be the importance for France to defend the use of its language. Consequently, the plan focuses also on the creation of French content on the Web, from France itself or from Francophone countries. The action plan also talks about the digital divide and has specific measures to close it. Some of these measures are to have 7000 public spaces allowing access to Internet in three years.

Among them, 2500 digital public centres will offer the possibility to get general training, which will lead to the creation of 4000 youth jobs as multimedia trainers. Another big project is to train 1.2 million unemployed people with IT training sessions including computer, Internet, and Multimedia education (French government 2000). The plan not only focuses on France, but has also actions for what it calls the North/south digital divide, particularly in French speaking developing countries.

The geographical inequalities remain high in terms of access to new technologies and the Prime Minister M. Jospin announced in July 2001 that the government would help establish new technologies in the most remote areas of the country (CIADT, 2001). For example, 20% of the country has no access to mobile phones services because it is not profitable for companies to install relays there; the government will make the investment to insure that all the country is covered. In the same train of thought, the geographical gap between urban and rural settings seems likely to wide up again with the fast Internet connections. Therefore, the government will pay for the infrastructure if the market does not cover it in order that everyone in France will be able to get a fast connection by 2005 at reasonable costs. He also declared the need for more Public Internet Access points in rural areas and that the government would finance the establishment of 400 new ones.

In two years, 70% of the objectives of the national plan were reached and had enabled France to catch up with its late beginning. An example could be the Internet connection of schools which rates among the highest in Europe now with 50% of primary schools connected and 100% of high Schools. Nevertheless, France is not ranked high at the EU level on term of development of Information Society but the progress is obvious.

From the same study from which I took the figures for Estonia, the Internet penetration in France is 33% (+ 7% in one year). While this figure is comparable with the Estonian one, the gender gap is here more prominent since 42% of men and only 24% of women are using Internet (TNS Interactive Report, 2001)

A Social center initiative

This project takes place in La Chartre sur Le Loir, a small village with less than 1600 inhabitants, in a remote rural area of western France. A social centre is a place where all social actions take place to respond to the needs of the local population. For that reason, many different actions are proposed from after-school activities for kids to meetings for unemployed people. I found this project by reading an article from a national newspaper, which talked about an insertion program using new technologies (Abdi, 2000). An insertion program is a social action in a limited time targeted at the most disadvantaged people, all of them in the minimum income circuit, that aims at working with them on all problems they might encounter. I was interested to see what the results of such a program could be. Unfortunately, it was not running anymore, but I discovered that it was only a small part of the centre’s strategy to bring the new technologies to all. The global aspect of the solutions decided me to include it in my research. I met there the director Mr. Alexis Braud who initiated the use of new technologies in the centre and Mrs. Le Flem who led the insertion program when it was running. The different aspects of the global strategy in use in the centre are:

  • Training modules to new technologies.

  • Public Internet access

  • An insertion program

  • Creation of websites

According to Mr. Braud, he started this project as a response to the geographical isolation of the village more than to a social need. For him the Internet is not solely a good tool to communicate with far away people, it is also appropriate as a proximity medium. Once the first investments were made to have the material for after school activities, it was decided to initiate the most possible people to the use of computers and Internet. That led to the creation of training modules, which are made of two sessions of three hours each. The first session starts with a theoretical explanation of technology use by the computers and the network. They want people who are not used understanding how things work to be more at ease and confident with new technologies. It is interesting to notice that sometimes they also had to incorporate an extra hour to train people to use a mouse. For people used to computers, using a mouse comes naturally without thinking, but it does not come instinctively and may need some training for some people, especially for older people. Most of the basic training to use Internet is done in three hours and according to their experience, this amount of time is sufficient. This short time shows that it is not necessary to invest much to equip people with a basic knowledge. They also concentrate on how to find the relevant information on the web. The training modules are highly successful and a wide variety of people are participating, maybe because as an individual it costs only about 23 euros, which is affordable to most people.

Aware of the social mission of their centre, they also provide these sessions free to targeted groups. Most recently, they received some group of farmers, primary schools teachers, and local authorities staff. This is seen as an important part of the development of new technologies. The sessions besides giving the basic knowledge to use the computer and Internet also focus on showing how it can be useful to them. For the director, this is a crucial point, if someone cannot find anything interesting for him, he/she will not use Internet. It is just a tool and therefore must be useful to the user otherwise it loses sight of its goal.

In the same train of thought, the training focuses on the emitting and receiving possibilities of Internet. To use the tool fully, one must participate in creating contents. This is vital so most people can find on the web what is interesting for them. This is why they also provide training for the creation of websites. Nowadays, the centre is well known in the region and many local municipalities asked them to help them create their websites. For Mr. Braud those sites are particularly important in rural areas where the diffusion of information is not so easy. When they do accept to help to create a web site, they also insist that a staff member of the municipality learn how to make it, in order to be able to update it regularly. An interesting point to notice is that the creation of those web sites has often also led to the installation of a Public Internet Access Point in those localities.

The public access point to Internet in the centre just consists of a computer in a room used at the same time as an information centre for local people. Connected to Internet, the computer can be used by anyone. The access and the use are totally free and it is not even necessary to make a prior appointment. Everyday, around 5 to 10 people come, many of them to look for jobs, to send some email or to look for information on activities in the area. This free access costs a lot to the social centre, especially in communication expenses but is seen as a necessity for now. There is always a person around to help if someone needs it when using the access point. To always be close to the public demands and to be where they are, the social centre also installed a second Internet access point at the local swimming pool for the summer. This seems to me an original idea; some people who are not aware of the permanent access point could be interested.

Even if the insertion program was over, I wanted to learn a little more about it. In my research for projects, this was the first one I found that promoted the teaching of new technologies to the most disadvantaged people. The program lasted 8 months with nine people. They all came from different backgrounds, but they had all been disconnected from the labour world for years. As in any program of this kind, the goals are to reconnect people with work and to work on their problems but not to teach them a new job. Most of the time these programs focus on manual activities, such as gardening or sewing, because it is assumes that people attending them are less educated and are more at ease with manual activities. For this action, they decided to use the new technologies because people were more interested in the service sector and it enabled to mix people regardless of their sex or age, which is not often easy with over projects. Seven out of nine of them had never touched a computer, but the challenge was to make them create some websites. That was chosen because a lot of pedagogy can be involved in the creation of the web site. First, one has to learn how to use a computer and Internet, then how to take pictures, scan them and finally to learn the programming language (HTML 4). For people who were not successful at school, it was a challenge to master all this. The goals were different for each of them, depending on what they wanted to achieve with this program. The final goal of the program is to use the new technologies as tools to progress and not to make them graphics professionals. Nevertheless, they managed to develop two web sites; one on their insertion program (social centre, 2001) and the other was the locality web site (val de loir, 2001). In order to create the latter, they had to visit many people in the community to ask them to be part of the site and that was not easy for some of them. For example, they asked some owners of bed and breakfasts to take pictures of their houses to put them on the web.

For some others to make appointments over the phone, manage a schedule, and be on time were the challenges. In addition, in a small town they are known as non-workers and people do not expect them to be capable of doing a website.

Even if this action focuses on a professional insertion, this constant interaction with the district inhabitants is also a means to promote a social insertion. Another benefit of making a web site is that it is a collective and individual work at the same time; you create your page alone but it is linked to the others. The success of finishing the web sites was valorising for them and one has to remember that these people have life stories with not much success and do not have much self-esteem. The web site was first presented at a regional agricultural event and was a big surprise to many inhabitants. First, to realize that the ones who created it were the supposedly the less capable changed some people opinions on them. Also to see their name and properties on the web was a shock for some farmers who decide after that to go to the social centre to learn about Internet and to create websites to sell their products.

At the end of the eight months seven out of nine found a job, not always linked to new technologies. However, for one of them, Stephane Biran, his competency was such that he was later hired by the centre to work on their multimedia projects and is still working there. In the same newspaper article as mentioned above, he explained that he had been homeless for years travelling around Europe before coming back to his home town and doing the program. The program was successful but is just considered as a tool like any other ones used in the centre to promote new technologies spread, this is why no other insertion program was made since this one because there were not the people who would benefit from it in the area. The global aspect of the project has interested other local authorities and at this time, Mr. Braud is helping eight of them to create some similar projects.

Internet Bus

Department authorities from Seine Maritime (North west of France), noticing that besides two major cities, the department was mostly rural with many people never coming to the cities, decided to create in may 1999 an Internet Bus (Bus internet, 2001). Nine computers and two printers are installed in the bus with a fast Internet connection. The aim of this bus was to promote Internet use and knowledge to all inhabitants of the department. They thought it would be a good initiative to go where people were to reach more of them. The solution to focus on training with temporary access was such a singular answer to the digital divide from all I heard before that I decided it would be interesting to include it in my work. I visited the bus twice. Once it was when the bus was for the day in a tiny village with less than 300 inhabitants, the second time was in a horse race event with a bigger crowd. These two real different settings can be explained by the fact that any mayor of the department can ask the bus to come to their locality for free. They just have to pay for the electricity use during the visit. In addition, this is an integral part of the project to go where people are and to try to reach the most people possible, which explains the variety of settings. The mobility of the bus is a great advantage to go everywhere in the department in remote places or to specific locations, such as schools not yet connected or to elderly people’s houses, even to a monastery once.

In those cases, their coming is meant to address particular groups. In my point of view an interesting answer, especially now when establishment of the new technologies is not common everywhere. For older people the toughest challenge is to make the first step in trying to use the new technologies, because experience shows that once they are confident with them, they use it well. So to go and meet them where they live might be a good answer to this particular point.

About 10 days a month, the bus goes out. When they go into small villages, which are geographically far away from the main cities of the department they reach the whole population, a mix of old rural population and families where parents commute to cities. Of course, in this case also young people and more particularly kids come to the bus. According to the team experience, they have seen an evolution because of a better training of kids to Internet. If before they came to learn how to use it, now they are for the most part familiar with Internet. The passage of the bus is an opportunity to use the web, because most of them do not have it home or are not allowed by the parents to use the computer. I also noticed that the bus was a meeting point for people. In small villages, there are not too many activities and the bus visit is a social event and an occasion to have contacts. This might be why the passage of the bus is always highly successful in small villages. The team told me that once they went to a tiny place, not even a village with 50 people, and during the day they saw the whole population visiting! When I was there about two third of the computers were used by kids. They seemed satisfied why what they could find on web sites specialized for their age. For them, it seems that the training and the contents is no problem, nor the attitude since they are so eager to use computers and Internet. I also saw older people coming, mostly couples who came for around 15/20 minutes just to have a try.

When the bus goes to primary schools, at the teacher’s demand, it is most of the time to compensate for the insufficient number of computers connected to Internet. Most rural schools in France have computers, thanks to a national program to equip school in the 80’s, but most of the time they have only a few of them connected to the web. They also are visiting after-schools centres. In that case, they come so the kids can use the bus to work on specific projects with their instructors. That seems like another good use of this bus to go where a temporary Internet access might be required or to complement the existing ones if necessary.

The bus team is still training new people all the time, especially when they address specific groups, they are also noticing a change in attitude towards Internet as time passed. Although before there was some reluctance and fears to come to the bus, nowadays most people are aware of Internet and are curious to experience it. There are also more and more questions about the technical aspects of Internet and the creation of websites. They noticed that while more people have the basic knowledge to use Internet, they have difficulties to learn by themselves the most difficult aspects of it. That is why they are currently thinking about changing the mission of the Internet bus towards more specific training. It might be for example to go to a village and to offer a program with different training sessions throughout the day and where people would sign up according to their own interests. They are also talking about installing web cams to show the benefits of video-mails.