Digital Wellbeing – Maximising the Benefit and Mitigating the Risk

August 6, 2019

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by Douglas White, Head of Advocacy, Carnegie UK Trust

This Sunday, 11 August, marks 100 years since the death of our founder, the great Scottish-American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie. In recognition of this historical landmark we are publishing a special blog series this week, with a new article every day, explaining how the Trust is continuing Carnegie’s legacy, 100 years since his passing. Today Douglas White writes about our digital work.

 

When Andrew Carnegie founded the Carnegie UK Trust in 1913 with a mandate to improve the wellbeing of people in the UK and Ireland he had the foresight to give his future Trustees the right to regularly reinterpret that broad remit according to the most pressing issues of their time.

In 2019, a century after Carnegie’s death, it is inevitable that any analysis of the range of factors impacting on individual, community and societal wellbeing should include an understanding of the transformative effects of digital technology on how we live our lives.

The impact of technology on all aspects of society and the economy during the past thirty years is well-documented. The benefits for many of us have been substantial. But there are downsides too, which are increasingly being surfaced and challenged.

Today, one of the Carnegie UK Trust’s core areas of activity is our ‘Digital Futures’ programme through which we deliver policy and practice initiatives that aim to maximise the benefits of technology for people’s wellbeing, and mitigate the risks.

Through this work we can draw a number of clear themes and issues for wellbeing.

There is a clear social justice dimension around access to and use of digital technology. Those who are most likely to be disadvantaged according to a range of social or economic measures are also more likely to experience disadvantages engaging digitally, whether through exclusion; through a limited or narrow digital experience; or through a greater risk of exposure to different types of harm online. In this context, there is a likelihood of technology deepening existing inequalities in society, in contrast to a commonly held public narrative, where digital is often seen as being an open, democratic, equalising force. At the Trust we have sought to contribute to addressing this issue, through a number of studies to research and challenge the concept of digital exclusion and now through our pioneering #NotWithoutMe programme, which specifically aims to improve access to digital technology and skills for different groups of vulnerable young people – a group often mistakenly assumed to be reaping the benefits that technology can bring.

Much of the growth of the digital landscape has been driven by private interests. Often the onus to engage with digital markets and platforms, and to do in safe, effective ways to achieve the greatest utility, has been left to individual citizens to work through. However, there is an increasing recognition of the challenges and risks in the way that many of these markets and platforms are constructed, including the highly asymmetric power dynamic between providers and citizens and the global nature of large tech firms which makes it very difficult to build an organised user interest. There is a growing understanding that these issues require a range of policy interventions to ensure that digital technology delivers positive wellbeing outcomes for people. Public policy is still in the relatively early stages, compared to more mature industrial sectors, of working through how it should intervene in these spaces and the broad approach for doing so.  As it goes on this journey there is significant experience that we can draw upon from the offline world in how we seek to tackle a range of economic and social challenges. We have a vast array of well-tested models of regulation, public service delivery and community-based practice in many different fields, which can help us find effective parallels that support action on digital issues. At the Trust we have been heavily engaged in work over the past 18 months to develop an effective regulatory system to tackle harm on social media, drawing on the well-established ‘duty of care’ model that works so well in a number of offline settings.

Meanwhile new sets of values and attitudes for public digital services and spaces are emerging, but are not yet fully formed and require further exposure and development. Services which are predominantly transactional in nature are more advanced in their roll out, but highly effective, responsive, relational digital public services have – unsurprisingly – been slower to emerge. The Trust’s contribution to this agenda has been through our current partnership with the British Library and Arts Council England, through which we are exploring the potential for a new Single Digital Presence for UK public libraries.

Through this work we can also understand that the division between the ‘digital world’ and the ‘offline world’ is increasingly a false dichotomy. People live their lives both on and offline and the division between these is often blurry. From a service delivery perspective this brings a number of questions. How can public services find the right blend of digital and ‘real world’ provision where each channel supports the other, maximising the value of both? Or how can existing services help people navigate a range of digital challenges? From a Carnegie legacy perspective, the Trust is particularly interested in the role that public librarians and librarians – safe spaces and trained information professionals in local communities – can play in supporting people to maximise benefit and mitigate harm online. We’ve been very pleased to work with CILIP and Newcastle Libraries to produce a new toolkit, ‘Leading the Way’, a guide to privacy for public library staff.

The rapid proliferation of digital technology and services is producing an unprecedented volume of data. Large tech firms have hugely advanced and continually developing means of mining this data in order to adapt and tailor their product offering. Public services are grappling with how they can take advantage of similar opportunities, but need to work through their attitude and approach to doing so. This requires a sophisticated approach to understanding the risks and benefits of using data, and a clear view on the standards that services must hold themselves to in doing so – particularly when sharing data between providers. To date there has not been a consistent approach on these issues across the UK. The Trust has worked with Involve and Understanding Patient Data to produce a new framework for service providers in weighing up benefits and risks of data sharing to improve public service delivery, which we hope can help advance this agenda.

If digital is to achieve the transformative wellbeing benefits for all citizens that many of us believe it has the potential to deliver, then we need highly quality, robust evidence to support these outcomes – particularly for digital interventions aimed at supporting those experiencing the greatest disadvantage. This is not necessarily straightforward to capture – partly as it is often still too soon for longitudinal benefits to be assessed, but also because isolating the positive effects of any digital intervention from other factors is not easy. Again, the Trust has sought to contribute to this important agenda, through our Living Digitally report, which highlights quantifiable improvements in life satisfaction experienced by tenants benefitting from a new digital technology system in their home.

A final, critical point for reflection on digital change is that the pace of this change is rapid and constant. The issues where we need to take action to maximise benefit and mitigate risk can emerge quickly and require policy and practice to pivot accordingly – a process of reorganisation and adaptation that Andrew Carnegie himself would recognise well.