Fenland city on the frontline

June 9, 1995

Cambridge is more bound culturally to elitism and the pursuit of excellence than egalitarianism but it is about to embark on a tentative electronic experiment in that direction.

The city's MP, Anne Campbell, is teasing out the final threads in a project to ensure that the whole population is enmeshed in the fabric of the Internet.

The launch date for the Online City project is "the middle of the summer", a general date reflecting the complexities of a task that is to make the Cambridge conurbation uniquely well-connected to the teaching, learning and informat-ion resources of the Net, and particularly the World-Wide Web.

The third Labour member to be elected by Cambridge, Ms Campbell was the first woman MP for the constituency when she took her seat in 1992. She is working with David Blunkett, shadow secretary of state for education, on the future of information technology in research and education, while chairing a sub-group on the Labour Party's Smith commission on the "information superhighway".

She knows that other urban projects are trying to connect people to the Net using centralised resources, but says the Cambridge project is different. "There are around 15,000 academic-related professionals and probably 5,000 high-technology work-based or at-home consultants in this city," she says. "I'm worried that we are in the process of creating an information elite and an information underclass."

She speaks from long local experience. Educated at Newnham College, she taught mathematics in Cambridge secondary schools before becoming senior lecturer in statistics at Cambridgeshire College of Arts and Technology, now Anglia Polytechnic University, and for nine years until her election she was head of statistics and data processing at the National Institute of Agricultural Botany in Cambridge.

Cambridge has been her home for 35 years and she is well aware of its twin sides, having spent the past four years of the 1980s in local politics. She was a member of Cambridgeshire County Council and became spokeswoman on further education and finance.

Despite the split between town and gown, she says: "I'm confident that other cities will follow when it is realised what enormous benefits can accrue from the new technology. With all the high-tech industry around the city, it is the right place to take the lead with this idea."

The first steps to redressing the balance were taken by Ms Campbell in January when the Labour Party enjoined a group led by Chris Smith MP to report on the development and consequences of broad-band networks in the United Kingdom.

But the Cambridge project is not tied to the high-tech party line of the commission, expected to report back to the Labour leadership next month. Rather, it aims to provide a focus for those interested in the immediate future of networked access.

"With Online City, I hope that Cambridge will lead the way in showing the rest of the UK the major social benefits that can come from recent advances in telecommunications technology," Ms Campbell says. "At present, use of this technology is limited to a relatively small number of people. I would like to see electronic communications made far more available to everyone, so that we can all benefit from having easy access to useful information online."

This means targeting and encouraging precisely those people - unemployed, single parents, retired and disabled - who may have first, a fear of the new technologies and second, no means of buying equipment to get online.

Alongside that is the knowledge that funding for IT teaching and learning projects, particularly in schools, is poor in comparison with some other European countries and the United States. Funding for teacher training in schools and for IT in that sector generally has fallen from Pounds 0.6 million in 1993/94 to Pounds 250.1 million in this fiscal year.

The educational side of the project receives technical advice from the University of Cambridge, which is represented on the steering group by Helen Sargan of the university computing service. Contacts are being established with Anglia Polytechnic University. The county library service is also on the group, which seeks to involve a broad base of political and business interests.

"We want to appeal to the widest range of people and we are sure that as the project develops, more people will see the need for this access. The educational issues are in discussion and we would very much like to be able to access the wealth of information and expertise at the universities," Ms Campbell says.

This will follow if the project is successful in its initial aim of getting local people to learn how to use online information services. To that end, Online City will have PCs in place as public access terminals dotted around Cambridge, probably by mid-August.

There will be six in the first phase, at the central library, Addenbrookes Hospital, the Citizens Advice Bureau, the Department of Social Security, a north city branch library and a new area housing office in the southern sector.

If the technical difficulties involved are surmounted, it is hoped that eventually housing advice, job vacancies, benefit details, cultural information, rail and bus timetables and information about childcare and training courses will be posted on the sites.

Local companies are being asked to contribute cheap or free hardware, software, telecomms access, Internet connections and space on World-Wide Web servers.

At first, the public access terminals will have a restricted access Web service. They will reveal useful local information without exposing users to the temptations of unrestrained Net surfing. But the project will also have a public Web site, accessible to anyone who uses a home or office computer to access the Internet, and fully linked with the rest of the global information community.

By setting up a bulletin board (cam.online) and a mailing list (cambridge@cityscape.co.uk) Ms Campbell has ensured that the existing online community can contribute their knowledge to the project.

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