Tech poverty creates real barriers to daily life for many across the UK
Technology continues to play an ever-more significant role in all our lives, from the growing amounts of data we can hold between our fingertips, to the ability to automate repetitive tasks, to the power to connect across the globe. But while technology opens doors for some, for others, it locks them firmly shut, creating a barrier of expensive devices, complicated skills and inaccessible connectivity.
Highlighting digital exclusion
Over the course of multiple lockdowns, many businesses and organisations moved services online to continue supporting their users. Doing so had the unintended consequence of cutting off many of those unable to access the digital world from essential services, resources and support that was suddenly only available online.
Digital exclusion is by no means a new phenomenon, but the pandemic highlighted it across demographics, postcodes and sectors. Whether young people only able to access schoolwork on a parent’s mobile phone, adults struggling to access essential services or pay bills, or older people isolated from family, lack of access for many was exacerbated by the closure of libraries, schools, offices and shops. Even as restrictions have eased, this heightened state of digital exclusion remains, as many organisations continue to postpone a full return to in-person work.
Devices, digital skills and connectivity
Here at Scottish social innovation charity People Know How, we also embarked on a digital transformation in March 2020. Our two core services, Positive Transitions (supporting children and young people in the transition to secondary school) and Reconnect (improving wellbeing by increasing digital and social inclusion) both moved to online and distance service delivery, as did our events, networking and collaboration programmes. With over six years of championing digital inclusion under our belts, we knew we would need to support the people who use our services every step of the way. We strategised a remote hybrid service delivery model targeted at bolstering our service users’ digital confidence through varied communication methods, creative resources and an ethos centred on patience and understanding.
This model led to the development of our three-pronged approach to digital inclusion: devices, digital skills and connectivity. We believe that these three tools can best support people to combat digital exclusion. Over the last two years, we have delivered almost 3,000 devices and provided digital support to over 4,000 individuals, winning a Scottish Charity Award in the process.
Recognising that other organisations were going through similar experiences and facing similar challenges, in November 2020 we held Connect Four: Digital Inclusion. Our event invited key voices in digital from across the academic, public, third and business sectors to participate in online discussions and facilitate tangible change towards digital inclusion. A key finding of this event was that the biggest obstacle to digital inclusion was connectivity.
Living without connectivity
Those living without connectivity can be described as living in ‘data poverty’. This means that they cannot afford sufficient internet data to meet their essential needs such as shopping for food and maintaining finances, staying connected with family members, and finding employment or education. Data poverty can have far-reaching and damaging effects on the mental, physical and social health of households.
There are currently some connectivity solutions available, but all are temporary. For example, the Scottish government scheme Connecting Scotland offers unlimited connectivity through mobile data for a fixed two-year period. This is a huge step up from the initial offering of 20GB per month, but it still comes with an expiration date. What is needed is a long-term, sustainable solution to data poverty that will continue after the pandemic. That is why we launched Connectivity Now, a campaign to end data poverty in Scotland.
The campaign manifesto outlines three main actions that we believe can end data poverty in Scotland. First, regulate connectivity by offering better packages to people on low incomes and viewing internet as a basic utility alongside gas, electricity and water. Second, link connectivity to shared spaces. If done securely, sharing and subsidising data through community hubs and social housing can substantially widen access to data. Third, ‘zero-rate’ essential service websites. ‘Zero-rating’ is the act of allowing access to certain websites for free, or in other words, without spending any additional data, a concept similar to freephone numbers.
Connectivity Now is a call to action for all sectors to unite our experiences from the pandemic and do something about data poverty. We believe that, through cross-sectoral collaboration, these three action points can eliminate data poverty and bring about connectivity for all. Since launch, we have campaigned for pledges of support from organisations and community groups to back us as we lobby the government to implement policy change that can make the campaign goals a reality.
Data poverty is just one aspect of poverty, but it is one that causes numerous additional challenges, reducing access to education and employment, heightening the cost of living, and negatively impacting wellbeing. We are calling on policymakers to recognise the impact that data poverty has on people. We want them to action our manifesto points, engage in conversations with organisations working directly with the people affected by these issues, and embed digital inclusion in policies, strategies and plans for future development. Together, we can implement lasting change across Scotland.
The road ahead
As we continue to run Connectivity Now, the support for our campaign and our growing list of pledgers has facilitated talks with local government and partner organisations about creating a new digital inclusion strategy for all ages. We also continue to shape this programme on the national stage using findings from our work supporting the local community with digital.
People Know How encourages organisations and community groups from all sectors to pledge their support to Connectivity Now. By uniting our voices and collaborating across sectors, we can make ourselves heard as a voice for all those affected by data poverty.
Claudia Baldacchino is the Communications and Digital Manager at Scottish social innovation charity People Know How
To find out more and pledge visit Connectivity Now
This article first appeared in the RSA Journal Issue 2 2022.
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