"I'm a very simple man. You've got to have a computer nowadays to turn the TV on and off. And the nightmare continues" - Ozzy Osborne

How are we tackling the divide that still exists for so many people, in an age when everything is going digital?

I first used a computer in 1982. My dad had retired and bought a BBC B for the house, choosing a computer that had programming capability so 9 year old me and my younger brother could get some educational benefit, as well as play endless games of Paper Boy and Chuckie Egg. So I'm an early adopter of all things digital, as are many of my generation.

Chuckie Egg on the BBC B

Chuckie Egg on the BBC B

But I was lucky, and not everyone is. When you're born, where you live, what you do for a living (indeed, if you even have a job), whether you have a disability and what level of education you have will all have a massive impact on whether or not you use technology or go online.

Only 59% of households with one person 65 or over have internet access - and it's similarly low if you're disabled or live in a lower-income household

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) have recently published their latest report into internet access and usage (which supplements their Internet use in the UK research from May 2018), which showed 89% of the population accessed the internet at least weekly in 2018, and 90% of households in the UK have internet access.

But for older people, there's a different story. In 2018, households with one adult aged 65 years and over had the lowest proportion of internet access, at 59%. Only 44% of those aged 75 or over were recent internet users. And 4.2 million people across the UK over the age of 55 have never been online.

And if you're disabled, it's just as bad. 20% of all disabled adults have never used the internet.

If you look at employment and income statistics, the figures are similarly stark. The latest OFCOM Communications Market report published this month reported that people in lower-income households are less likely to use the internet. Across the UK, two in ten unemployed people do not have access to the internet, and non-use is higher among adults in C2DE households (17%) than those in ABC1 households (4%).

We know there is a clear connection between digital exclusion and social exclusion. Those who have the most to gain from using technology and the internet are the least likely to be using them, creating a vicious circle. 

credit BFI

credit BFI

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.

The old UK passport website. Those were the days.

The old UK passport website. Those were the days.

The role of libraries in the UK ... if we have enough of them

In the UK, we're not quite as quick or as coordinated as Estonia, and as early adopters we grew in an uncoordinated and haphazard way that wasn't great for UK residents. I am old enough to remember the days before Gov.uk and 100s of departmental government websites, not many of them very good.

Now we have a UK Digital Strategy, published in 2017, covering connectivity, economy and business, data, safety, digital government and digital skills and inclusion. The work on digital inclusion highlights the budget spent on skills and training, as well as the provision of free wifi in all libraries across England and states that libraries will become "the ‘go-to’ provider of digital access, training and support for local communities". I can't help but be a little bit cynical about the role of libraries being fundamental to future plans for digital inclusion, when the buildings themselves are closing down across the country; 449 libraries closed between 2012 and 2017 as a result of funding cuts across England, Scotland and Wales. Infrastructure, connectivity and support needs to be delivered through more locations than public sector buildings that may not be around in six months, let alone six years.

But of course those who work in libraries understand the role they have in supporting economic growth and helping individuals back into work. Libraries across the UK run CV clinics, digi-buddies sessions, job fairs, Google digital garage events, and facilitated sessions with partner agencies such as Adult Learning and Skills and Jobcentre Plus. There were some nice examples from Staffordshire libraries and Warwickshire Libraries amongst others discussed at #LibrariesWeek in 2017.

Developing a self-build telecomms network for residents in Wales

Digital Merthyr, launched in 2014, was the first project of its kind in the UK, and was about working with the community - many of whom are affected by welfare reforms - to build affordable internet access in Gellideg (a small town in South Wales). This project was set up for many reasons, not least because in 2011, broadband services offered in the area were amongst the worst in the UK, and take-up was around 55%. Although it was recognised that many in the community were accessing the internet via their smartphones, there was a definite need to improve access and opportunity, but also make it affordable. This project was very much community led, developing Digital Champions to help implement the project, which had a positive knock-on effect of bringing value-added skills and employment opportunities. 

A wifi project in NYC that had to work hard to win over sceptical residents

Queensbridge Connected was a project to bring free wifi to North America's largest public housing complex in New York. This wasn't without its challenges, not least the concern from residents that installing free wifi meant the gentrification - and eventual sale - of the estate to private developers. And there were technical problems, such as for the network to provide even coverage throughout the buildings, small access points - the size of a dessert plate - had to be installed in the hall cupboards of roughly every third unit. The story of how this worked - like in Wales, in no small part thanks to residents hired to work on the project - is a fascinating one, and well worth a read. 

Providing free wireless networks; it's not just about the wifi

Greece and Germany both have good examples of community driven solutions, using existing infrastructure to meet a need.

The Athens Wireless Metropolitan Network (AWMN) is a grassroots wireless community, using new technologies, to connect people and services. AWMN started in 2002 because of the extremely limited broadband coverage available to home users, and was founded as an alternative broadband network.

The freifunk community in Germany is part of a global movement for free infrastructure and open frequencies. Where this differs from simply providing free wireless access - although they do in many cases - is the fact that they want interconnectivity between users that bypasses commercial providers. One of their key goals is reducing the digital divide: "We want to connect neighbourhoods, villages and regions to counter the digital divide and build free, independent network structures, such as unlicensed community radio, broadcast of local events, private digital swap meets and shared internet access". 

How digital inclusion can support health and social care priorities

South West Yorkshire NHS Foundation trust - a specialist NHS Foundation Trust that provides community, mental health and learning disability services to people in Yorkshire - are now providing wifi for service users of NHS mental health services, primarily those who stay in forensic (secure inpatient) settings. An absence of internet access for many of those users meant they were denied access to services that were vital for them, such as accessing health information or staying in touch with family members, but also - and critically - internet access means service users can return home quicker as they’re able to bid on council houses online. This is just one small example from the NHS of how internet access can make a very real difference to someone's life, but also reduce the strain on already stretched public sector services.


There are many other examples of the NHS working on digital inclusion for health and social care. There is clear recognition of a need to support people to get online and use digital health resources and how this can be crucial to achieving local priorities, such as shared decision making, long term condition management and appropriate use of urgent and emergency care.

The NHS Widening Digital Participation programme has 20 pathfinders across the country working to embed digital inclusion into healthcare, working with different groups including homeless people, young people, older people and gypsy travellers. A best practice guide for local health and care organisations to help them to take practical steps to support digital inclusion in their communities was published in April this year, with tools and case studies to support this programme, including a useful digital exclusion heat map, indicating the likelihood of an area for their population to be digitally excluded.

Surveillance or support?

I want to save my final example for something that is pretty close to my heart, as I now live 280 miles away from my elderly parents, and the work that is being trialled at Hampshire Council is something I am watching with interest. They are using voice recognition tech (and were the first local authority to do so), trialling Amazon Alexa for the delivery of social care and helping people to live independently. As Annemarie Naylor said to me, using new technology and the internet of things definitely has an important role in the provision of social care, but is it surveillance, or support?

As Ozzy Osborne said, you now need to use a computer to turn on your tv, but if you have a disability that makes it nigh-on impossible for you to operate a remote control and you can link Alexa to an Amazon Fire TV Stick to operate your television, that's definitely a dream, not a nightmare.


With thanks to Annemarie Naylor, Jude Tipper, Nicola Fulton, Nicola Capper and Makaela Stephens.