Updated: Jan 7, 2022
On October 19, I chaired a Holyrood Events conference on ‘Nobody Left Behind: Promoting Digital Inclusion and Participation Across Scotland’. The conference examined how the pandemic exasperated the digital divide, the Scottish Government’s proposals for digital inclusion and participation and discussed what else we can learn from grassroots initiatives in Scotland and further afield when it comes to ending digital exclusion. This brief article summaries my reflections and thoughts following that discussion.
Conference participants included:
Angela Siefer (National Digital Inclusion Alliance)
Adam Stachura (Age Scotland)
Amanda Britain (Communications Consumer Panel)
Katy McNeil (Scottish Government)
Adam Lang (Nesta Scotland)
Meg Thomas (Includem)
Michael McLaughlin (HACT/SFHA)
Aaron Slater (SCVO)
Alan Lees (BT)
The digital divide ecosystem
The Conference followed what can only be called an extraordinary 21 or so months for many of us grappling with home schooling and home working and home-made entertainment.
Although many of us were lucky enough to have access to several devices and good reliable broadband connectivity, many financially and socially vulnerable people experienced the opposite.
Getting access to one device or affordable broadband was a challenge for many and contributed further to the digital divide – the adverse effects of which were amplified by the pandemic.
There isn’t a single characteristic that causes the digital divide – digital exclusion is the result of a failed digital ecosystem as explained by the diagram below.
Figure 1 – Digital inclusion ecosystem. Source: Intelligens Consulting, 2021
The effect of the pandemic is a tale of two stories
It is widely agreed that the effect of the pandemic resulted in winners and losers and there are many lessons for policy makers and large companies to be learned from the impact of COVID-19.
On one hand the pandemic expedited the digital transformation of our workplaces and sparked the work from home revolution. Office workers wishing to achieve a greater work life balance and the climate were the real winners.
In contrast the pandemic widened the gap between the financially and socially vulnerable members of society and the rest of us. The most financially and socially vulnerable groups were unable to afford laptops, tablets, or expensive data packages. They lost out.
This meant that many children belonging to vulnerable groups were unable to learn from home during the pandemic resulting in many lost academic months.
Although initiatives to offer free public WiFi in public spaces can help somewhat, it was pointed out that nobody wants to hold a confidential call, child protection for example, in a public place.
In addition, many people in vulnerable groups don’t have funds to replace or upgrade their devices once they become damaged or obsolete further exasperating the problem.
Being disconnected affects offline relationships
Young people in the most deprived areas are particularly badly affected. Many young people run out of data allowances before the end of the month which leaves them disconnected from their friends both online and offline.
According to Includem’s Meg Thomas, being disconnected from online communities has a direct adverse impact on offline social relationships too i.e., children tend do not socialise offline if they don’t have access to data. They either miss out on ‘online chats’ or they are too ashamed of their situation to socialise.
However, this is not just a young person issue.
Age Scotland’s Adam Stachura estimated that over 60% of older people in Scotland don’t use the internet - that’s a city the size of the population of Edinburgh.
There are three reasons for this staggering statistic.
First, research according to Age Scotland shows that older people are sometimes unable to download apps as they may have older phones running operating systems that are not compatible with latest apps.
Second, older people tend to be less confident in security arrangements and in sharing their personal data online.
Third, older may have physical dexterity issues that may make it difficult to type or read when using devices.
As a result of being disconnected older people are unable to stay in touch with their family and friends or unable to benefit from using online delivery services, for example.
A niche problem became everybody’s concern
What was considered a niche problem became everybody’s concern according to Katy McNeil.
In March 2020, the Scottish Government launched a GBP 48 million emergency initiative, Connecting Scotland, to issue around 50,000 devices and 4G connectivity to society’s most vulnerable people.
This would allow people to continue to learn, socialise and stay well throughout the harshest periods of lockdown.
Overall, the Connecting Scotland initiative is sought to be successful. However, it is a temporary ‘stop gap’ fix and there is more that needs to be done to end digital exclusion for good.
Although low-cost broadband packages do exist, they are still out of the reach of many. Bad family credit can also mean the most vulnerable people are unable to qualify for good broadband deals as they are seen as a high risk by broadband service providers.
Connecting Scotland now entering a second much longer five-year intervention phase with a GBP 200 million commitment to address digital exclusion according to Katy McNeil.
However, several questions remain around: the scope of the intervention to address many of the issues discussed above; whether five years is enough to eradicate digital exclusion; and how the GBP 200 million will be used to create a longer-term solution rather than ‘stop gap’ fix to address the connectivity issue.
While the market’s focus is on rolling out 5G networks and extending fibre coverage to suburban and rural urban areas emphasis must also be given to connecting vulnerable members of society through social value. We should therefore consider innovative methods to stimulate service providers operating in a c. GBP 30 billion telecoms market to help.
Intelligens Consulting's team of technology, strategy, economic, procurement and finance experts can help design and deliver digital inclusion strategies. We have provided strategic, technical and procurement support, research and economic analysis, and created innovative financing approaches to fund the development of digitally inclusive societies.
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