Written by Douglas White, Acting Head of Policy, Carnegie UK Trust
Having access to the internet is now essential to being an included citizen in the 21st century. Indeed, the web has been described by some as “the fourth utility”. Access to the internet can help transform people's lives; it can help people to access public services more easily, achieve higher levels of educational attainment and improve employment prospects, which in turn can boost local economies.
But around a fifth of households across the UK are not online. This is a major problem. Research by the Tinder Foundation shows that those households who are least likely to be digitally connected are the very same households who are also likely to be struggling on a whole range of other measures of social and economic prosperity. And as technology gets better and faster, the divide between those who are connected and those who are not grows ever wider. Put simply, digital technology is exacerbating already well-entrenched inequalities when it should be bridging them. So, how do we fix this problem?
I would suggest that there are 7 steps all public, private, voluntary and community organisations interested in helping people to get connected and develop digital skills should take:
1. Show leadership
Make it a priority and have a clear strategy. Digital connectivity pervades all aspects of public policy and all social and economic interventions can be ‘digital-proofed’ to assess to what extent they impact on those who are not connected and what opportunities they provide to help those who are offline to get access. In Liverpool, the city council has integrated its digital inclusion campaign into the city plan and made digital inclusion a key link in its social and economic policy statements.
A whole range of different organisations have a role to play in tackling digital exclusion. The work that is required to help connect the final fifth needs to go to where people are and engage with them in their everyday life. This means that housing associations, health providers, charities, community groups, post offices and libraries have all got a big contribution to make. But each partner needs to play to their own strengths and find a way of engaging that works for them. Mersey Police, for example, helped local residents worried about safety in their area to use tools such as Skype to contact their neighbours or the police.
3. Have a plan
The offline population is diverse and dispersed. Many organisations want to help tackle digital exclusion, which is positive. But if there isn’t a clear plan about how this will be done then there is a risk of both duplication and of people ‘falling between the gaps’. The Digital Fife project uses a successful cascading approach. The project helps voluntary and community groups to build their own websites. In return, these groups are asked to become digital leaders and support other individuals and groups to get online.
4. Focus on the person not the tech
Every person has a hobby or interest, and there is content online related to every hobby. Conversations with people about going online must start with their interests – not with the technology. Wiltshire Council recruits, trains and supports a network of local volunteers who support people in their neighbourhood to get online. These ‘digital champions’ work with people one-to-one to help them do what they want to online, at a pace they are comfortable with.
5. Be holistic
For most people who are not online there is no single barrier which is preventing them from getting connected – issues of cost, confidence, motivation and skills are all highly relevant. An approach to helping people get online must address all of these issues otherwise it is unlikely to succeed. In Glasgow, social housing provider the Wheatley Group is piloting a multi-strand approach to help get its tenants online, including providing them with free Wi-Fi, use of laptops or tablets and access to training to develop their digital skills.
6. Involve communities
The internet is by definition a method of social engagement. It therefore makes sense that activities to help people get connected should be social too. In Sunderland the Council’s community IT programme uses many community-based activities to tackle digital exclusion in the places that people visit, including 'electronic village halls' – digital support hubs based in community centres, social housing organisations or faith groups.
7. Make it fun
The internet brings great social and economic benefits but it should be a source of enjoyment too – and as we’re still in the early phases of learning how to help the final fifth get connected we should not be afraid to be innovative and make it fun. Leeds Federated Housing Association’s HUGO project sends a bus into different communities across the city, with free Wi-Fi and digital participation activities; they have also created a fictional online family who tweet and blog about their experiences of learning to use the internet.
Click here to read Making Digital Real, the new report from the Carnegie UK Trust including our ‘7 Digital Participation Tests’ and case studies of leading digital inclusion projects from around the UK.