In today’s digital world, access to digital devices, skills, and data are key to being able to not only survive, but thrive online. Catch22 former Head of Partnerships, Kat Dixon looks at why digital inclusion is key, and what sustainable solutions to tackling the digital skills divide could look like.
Last week, a headteacher said something to me that really struck a chord. She said that when a child goes to school, we give them a pen and paper because these are the tools they need to fulfil their potential. And for young people facing the world in 2021, those tools are digital.
The digital divide is made up of a triangle: device, data and skills. One without the other is useless, and to really tackle inequality, we need to look at all three, together.
Digital access: the reality
Whether a young person is in a virtual classroom or applying for their first job, not having digital access holds them back.
If that young person is in a low income household, it’s even harder. According to analysis of the Ofcom Media Use report and Lloyd Consumer Digital Index:
- 7 million people did not have home internet access in 2019
- 1 in 5 adults who are offline said cost was a barrier for them
- 23% of children in low-income households don’t have access to broadband or a laptop/tablet.
Ayesha*, 19, has a cheap phone contract with enough data to talk to her friends online. But if she wants to job hunt, or look at online training, she’ll need to top up her data plan. She says that last month she had to choose between topping up her data and topping up her gas meter for heating. She couldn’t afford both.
*names changed to protect anonymity, authentic case study from Catch22 service user
The reality is that many young people are living in poverty during lockdown and can’t afford broadband. They don’t have access to free WiFi in libraries or eateries. Some young people have to choose between data and dinner. This is not a choice a young person should have to make.
Digital initiatives: do they work?
The pandemic has thrown a spotlight on digital access and some organisations have leapt into action.
BT worked with Department of Education to set up a WiFi voucher code system for in-need families for 6 months. This is amazing, and a huge step in the right direction, especially for families in cities. But people in rural areas couldn’t access the hotspots; we had reports from services that it wasn’t reaching everyone.
Likewise, Vodafone set up an unlimited data plan for job seekers for just £10 a month for people who’ve been unemployed during the pandemic. Again, an incredible scheme, which I’m sure many people benefited from. But when I spoke to frontline staff, they were worried about families being able to afford this; living in poverty means there isn’t always £10 left at the end of each month and planning six months ahead can feel impossible. A lot of people have Pay as You Go SIM cards because when income is uncertain, it’s hard to plan ahead.
Digital skills: the third point of the triangle
Of course, devices and data are only useful if you can use them. A teacher recently told me their school had generously been gifted laptops for the children to use. She stood on the doorstep of a family home, wearing a mask, two metres away, talking a parent step-by-step through the laptop set up. Neither the parent nor the child had the skills to use that gifted device.
This is not a lone case. 11.7 million people lack the basic the essential digital skills for day to day life online. A recent Ipsos Mori poll showed that many people have improved their skills during lockdown but there is still a huge gap:
- 11% of the population (5.9m people) are unable to turn on a device
- 12% (6.7m people) can’t connect a device to WiFi without help
- 25% (13.5m people) can’t use video calling apps like Skype or FaceTime
Digital skills don’t just keep people connected via video calls. Basic skills creates access to online benefits, GP and prescription services, wellbeing support services and job applications. At least 82% of jobs require digital skills. And for young people, who’ve been hit harder by the unemployment crisis than other groups, these skills are more important than ever.
So what’s the solution?
Like most big, complex problems, there are no quick fixes. But there are some great initiatives out there bridging the digital divide.
- The Good Things Foundation has produced a Blueprint for a 100% Digital Inclusive UK with some brilliant initiatives and much-needed ideas like a Poverty Data Lab
- O2 and Hubbub set up a scheme to distribute devices and 12 months of free data, and managed to get 20,000 devices out through grassroots community networks.
- DevicesDotNow have helped businesses donate devices, which they’ve distributed to those most in need
- Australian telecoms company Optus lets their customers donate unused data to those in need via charity The Smith Family. Since 2018, they’ve helped 14,500 young people get connected.
Are these initiatives sustainable?
The pandemic has thrown a spotlight on a bigger issue. The UK government recently announced the first remote areas to get ultra-fast broadband, a much welcomed move. But it’s not enough to tackle one point of the triangle.
Long term, we need bigger solutions to help the UK level up. We need:
- Initiatives that tackle all three elements of the digital divide: data, devices and skills. A device without data, data without skills, skills without a device – these are all useless. We need to tackle all three points of the triangle to create lasting change.
- A National Digital Exclusion strategy, bringing together access, inclusion, online safety and lining up government, charity and business to work together, not in small pockets.
- Schemes built with local charity partners. Government and businesses tend to want to use data to find people in need (registered free school meals, Universal Credit claimants). But chances are, the most vulnerable families are already known to a local service or charity. The best initiatives use existing local relationships to reach people most in need. We’re already on the ground – use us.
- Social tariffs – phone and data contracts for families in need, with reduced costs and for the most excluded, free. Online access is not a luxury, it’s essential to access services, health, wellbeing and to be connected. This is a first step in giving people the opportunity to get out of a poverty trap. Without it, we are only making inequality in this country worse.
– Kat Dixon, Head of Partnerships