Issue 7: Nov 2013

ARE WE REALLY CROSSING THE DIGITAL DIVIDE?

By Douglas White, Senior Policy Officer, Carnegie UK Trust

Appearing in the opening ceremony of last year’s Olympic Games in London Sir Tim Berners-Lee famously tweeted: “This Is For Everyone”, his message displayed in lights around the stadium. He was of course, partly referring to the Olympics; but he was also referring to the internet, which he had invented 20 years previously and had gifted to the world.

The question of how we actually ensure that the internet really is for everyone has been a topic of discussion during recent issues of Scottish Policy Now, with valuable contributions to the debate from Colin Cook and John Morrison. At present nearly one-third of households in Scotland do not have access to the internet in their home. In rural areas this lack of access is often due to the poor digital infrastructure and the fact that reliable high-speed broadband may simply not be available. In urban areas, where internet connectivity is widely available, lack of access is increasingly a social justice issue, with those on low incomes significantly less likely to be connected.

Does this matter, you might ask? Absolutely is the answer. Although there are clearly risks and dangers associated with being online, evidence shows that having access to the internet can be hugely beneficial, in a number of different ways. This includes access to cheaper goods and products, improved job prospects and education opportunities, easier access to public services, new sources of advice and information, new opportunities for communication with family and friends, and access to a range of different options for democratic and civic participation.

This Is For Everyone!....(But) The UK household average spend is nearly £98 per month.

And this is only now. As internet technology develops – and Colin Cook highlighted in his article that the broadband speeds available in Scotland will increase significantly in the next few years – the range of services available online, and the advantages derived from being able to access these will also increase dramatically.

This is great news for everyone who is a confident user of digital technology. But as the benefits of being online accrue rapidly, those who are offline are going to fall further and further behind. And this is deeply concerning; as many of those without access arguably have the most to gain from the advantages the internet can offer. The opportunities that the internet provides in relation to employment, education and access to services mean that it could be a really powerful tool in efforts to tackle deep-rooted social and economic inequalities. However, our current, growing, digital divide means that internet is actually reinforcing rather than tackling these very problems.
 
So what can we do about this? Well, I would suggest that any plan to try to increase internet access needs to understand and address three key questions – who is offline, why are they offline, and what approaches might be effective in supporting people to go online in the future? At the Carnegie UK Trust we recently carried out a new research study, working with Ipsos MORI, to try and answer these questions in Glasgow, where take-up of the internet is amongst the lowest in the UK.

The data that we uncovered in our research, through an examination of existing statistics and new primary research with 200 residents in Glasgow, showed that tackling digital exclusion is extremely complex and challenging. This is because the barriers to getting online can vary significantly for each individual or household. The problem is not limited to any single demographic group, although there are particularly high levels of exclusion amongst pensioners and non-working adults living in social rented accommodation. Similarly, digital exclusion is not confined to a small number of communities – it exists to some degree in almost every local neighbourhood.

There are also many different factors which influence why people do not have internet access, and whether they might wish to get access in the future. These factors include: a person’s level of trust in technology; how content they are doing things ‘offline’ (i.e. in person or by phone); their level of concern about different aspects of the internet, such as the often confusing telecommunications market or worries about issues such as spam or data protection; and, of course, major concerns about the cost of attaining and maintaining an internet service. The extent to which these different barriers is relevant can vary significantly according to different social and demographic characteristics – including age, gender, and whether or not someone is actually keen to go online.  There are also variations in what might motivate people to go online in the future – including a desire to look for information that is of particular interest to them, to communicate with others, or to apply for or look for a job.

If we want to help people to get online in the future then we must make available to them at a price they can afford.

The barrier of cost cannot be underestimated. In our research we found that households without internet access spent, on average, around £27 per month on all communications items – which might include mobile phones, landline phones, TV licence, subscription TV package and so on. The UK household average is nearly £98 per month. If we want to help people to get online in the future then we must make available to them at a price they can afford.

Given these findings, it seems that a ‘one-size fits all’ approach to tackling digital exclusion is very unlikely to succeed. Instead, a much more sophisticated strategy is needed – one which recognises that people experience different barriers to getting online, and takes the needs and motivations of each individual as the starting point for providing the right help and support. Achieving this type of personalised strategy would clearly require significant input from organisations, groups, and volunteers who are already working in different capacities with those who are offline and who are best placed to help find the right ‘hook’ or spark that can enable someone to begin the journey to digital participation.

Putting together such a strategy is not necessarily straightforward. Action to address digital exclusion clearly needs to take place at a local or even individual level, but at the same time be delivered at scale to reach the hundreds of thousands of Scottish households who are currently offline. But there are previous initiatives that we can look back at and learn from where citizens have been supported to make challenging and difficult changes – such as the digital TV switchover programme. Given the importance of digital connectivity and the growing urgency of the need to help people gain access the internet – not least the arrival of Universal Credit and online benefit applications – there is now a real opportunity and impetus to develop a new, collaborative approach to the issue, which can make a significant and lasting difference to tackling Scotland’s digital divide.

By Douglas White, Senior Policy Officer, Carnegie UK Trust

Issue 7: Nov 2013

Issue 7: Nov 2013

HEALTH, WELL BEING AND AGEING: SCOTLAND 2020

Re-energising the move towards integrated care

Scotland's move to integrated care can learn from elsewhere by focussing on two key differentiators between successful partnerships and those paying lip service to integrated working: Shared outcomes and common language is one, the other is demonstrating mutual investments and mutual benefits.

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