Reasons for the digital divide
There are many reasons why people don't use technology or go online, regardless of age or income. Availability of broadband or a means to connect, education and skills, confidence, time, motivation or concerns about security all have an impact. Understanding these reasons, and why they exist, is one small step towards tackling the digital divide.
Having read the ONS report, I wanted to write a brief blog post about the efforts made by organisations, businesses and communities to respond to the challenge of the digital divide. This brief post, however, turned into a very long list of great examples and opinions (thanks to everyone on social media who sent me suggestions) and far too long to include them all. The digital divide is real, but so are the many attempts to tackle it. This post will highlight just a few examples that were successful, made a difference or projects that I simply found interesting.
I've put to one side the view that we should be giving people a choice as to whether or not they go digital. The arguments are complex and, for me, the genie is out of the bottle anyway. Whether or not the benefits (like tackling loneliness or saving money through channel shift) outweigh the risks (like the impact on mental health in young people or the reduction in human contact) is not something I am going to debate in this post.
Using data to target those in most need
Include-IT Mersey is a scheme in Merseyside that provides targeted, personalised digital skills development and employment support to digitally excluded or unemployed/economically inactive residents. What I like about this project is the fact that it works hard to specifically target those in most need, using Housing Association and Indices of Multiple Deprivation data.
Using data well was also highlighted as critical to success in a fascinating conversation I had with Annemarie Naylor, Director of Policy from Future Care Capital. As she told me, organisations often have the data about the groups that need support from existing datasets they own or have access to, but what we are often lacking is information about what people want and need.
Include-IT Mersey - like many others - make use of the free online digital skills training, Learn My Way, provided by the Good Things Foundation (formerly the Tinder Foundation), a social change charity who help people improve their lives through digital. 82% of the people they support are socially excluded, and their focus is on digital as an enabler, recognising the difference it can make to not only employability and skills, but also health and wellbeing and financial literacy. I really like their latest blog post on learning theories and how they apply these on their digital skills training, like Linking; teaching new ideas by linking to what people already know, for example comparing using a password online to locking your door at home.
Digital exclusion is not the same as not being online
The Centre for Ageing Better published their excellent report "The digital age: new approaches to supporting people in later life get online" in May this year. They make a very valid point about what digital exclusion is and that we should target those in greatest need for the internet who are missing out by not being online. Some non-users have made an informed and reasoned choice to be offline and many also access online services through family and friends. In contrast, digitally excluded people have no means of accessing the benefits of the digital world – they often have the greatest need to access digital services, but they are the least able to do so.
Their advice is clear, detailed and based on an eight month research project, and should be required reading for anyone working on delivering digital services, because by not even considering older people, you are effectively excluding them and contributing to the digital divide. Particularly useful are their eight key good-practice principles for delivering digital support to people in later life, including co-designing all services, creating space for repetition and reflection and using the right language.
Digital skills are critical for future employment - but which skills?
It is predicted that within 20 years, 90% of all jobs will require some element of digital skills. Yet another reason why the digital divide needs tackling. Earlier this year, the Government announced plans for a £20 million investment into an Institute for Coding as part of the Industrial Strategy, identifying this as a core area to boost future digital skills, working in partnership with universities and large tech companies. Part of this is addressing the need to widen participation and boost equality and diversity in tech education and careers; much needed not least because in 2017 only 3.9% of programmers and software developers were women.
NESTA have recently looked at what kind of digital skills will be needed for future employment, or as they put it, those skills needed for a future-proof job. What sets ‘future-proof’ digital skills apart is their use for non-routine tasks, problem solving and creation of digital content. In short, if you are just inputting data it may not be long before a robot can take your place. But if you are creating something with that data, your job is not only less likely to disappear but they predict that it will become more important. Their analysis on future employment and digital skills looked at 41 million job adverts to identify the digital skills currently needed in those jobs most likely to grow by 2030 and those in the jobs most likely to disappear. While this doesn't seem, at first glance, to be tackling the digital divide, what NESTA are doing is advocating the use of labour market data to help job seekers and careers advisors make better informed decisions, enable better matching of skill supply and demand and support higher resilience for those at risk of unemployment and underemployment. Tackling the digital divide is all well and good but 'digital' is such a broad term they're right in the need to assess what this practically means, particularly in terms of employment prospects.
NESTA are prototyping a concept called Open Jobs; creating a family of tools that make use of the full range of data sources - public, commercial, web-scraping - to empower job seekers, employers, local government alike. Still in the early stages, they're looking for partners to design the first prototypes, and I'm going to keep an eye on how this develops.
The Lloyds Bank Consumer Digital Index is the largest measure of financial and digital capability of people in the UK, and their latest report was published in May this year. Like much of what else I've read, it doesn't make for wholly positive reading: there are 11.3m people in the UK who do not have basic digital skills and will not be able to do things such as fill out forms online, write a CV in a Word document or upload a photo. So while we can talk about employability and job requirements, there are many people in the UK who are already so far behind it will take a massive effort to get them up to speed to even consider jobs with a digital element, let alone be part of a future workforce.
Government support is critical for success
Back to NESTA, and I really like their study of highly-innovative 'smaller' countries: When small is beautiful. In particular, the story of the meteoric rise of Estonia from a country where only half the population had a phone line in 1991, to now one of the most tech–savvy nations in the world is great. This came about because of a conscious decision by a new and young generation of politicians, who came to power after the breakup of the former Soviet Union, who could see how rapid expansion in new technologies could support the growth of a 'new' nation. In 2000, the Estonian Parliament declared basic internet access as a human right, and embarked on an ambitious programme to give its population widespread and free access to wifi. Estonia now has over 2,440 free certified Wi-Fi areas meant for public use, including at cafes, hotels, hospitals, schools, and petrol stations.