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Digital Inclusion: In with the IT crowd

Photo: Bournville Village Trust resident Joyce Stone (R) showing Carole Lowe how she has learned to use a Breezie tablet

 

The internet has had a massive impact on our daily lives but as more services move online the digital divide widens. Michelle Gordon asks what can be done to ensure that those at risk of digital exclusion are not left behind

 

THE internet plays a huge role in the day-to-day activities of most people, from grocery shopping, booking tickets and restaurant reservations to paying bills and applying for jobs; many everyday services are now online.

Yet a significant proportion of the UK’s population are classed as digitally excluded. According to digital organisation, Doteveryone, almost one in four adults lack basic digital skills.

“Digital exclusion remains a huge issue in the UK,” says Rachel Neaman director of campus at Doteveryone. “Our latest figures show that 23% of all adults lack what we consider to be the five basic digital skills that everybody needs if they are going to be able to have a successful life in today’s digital world.”

The reasons behind digital exclusion vary and include not having the basic skills to get started, a lack of confidence, not having access to equipment such as smartphones, laptops and PCs or not being able to afford a broadband subscription to connect to the internet.

But it is not just practical reasons that hold people back, some just aren’t interested in getting online and think that it isn’t relevant to them.

“We find that even if people have the skills, they can afford it and they have the connectivity, if they don’t have the personal motivation to go online and don’t see it as relevant to them, then they won’t do it,” says Neaman.

Jess Allan, community development manager at Bournville Village Trust (BVT), says that its research has shown that a significant number of its tenants don’t use the internet and don’t understand why they need to do so.

A survey of 178 tenants revealed that 72% of respondents don’t know how to use the internet, with just under half also saying that they didn’t have access to it at home. But when asked if they would like to be contacted about support or training to make them feel more confident 84% declined the offer.

Making the personal benefits of getting online clear to individuals is key in battling digital exclusion says Neaman.

A huge part of BVT’s approach to getting more people online is promotion and helping them to understand why they might want to be part of the digital world.

“We are spending a lot of time around promoting the benefits of being a bit more digitally capable, rather than just saying you ought to do it,” says Allan.

Evidence suggests that people from disadvantaged backgrounds and those with low incomes are most at risk of digital exclusion and Neaman says that there is a bias towards the elderly, people from lower income backgrounds, the long-term unemployed and people with long-term health problems

“The more socially excluded an individual is the more barriers there are to being digitally included,” explains Hannah Bailey, digital inclusion co-ordinator at Berneslai Homes. And yet many benefit payments must now be accessed via the internet and the vast majority of jobs are not only advertised online but require online applications.

“What is ironic about that is the Government is pushing digital by default public services like Universal Credit and so on but it is often the case that the people who need those services the most are the most excluded,” adds Neaman.

“If you can’t access Universal Credit you won’t get your benefits, if you can’t do your job search and spend 35 hours a week looking for a job you have your benefits docked – it just becomes a complete vicious circle.”

Housing providers are trying to “plug the gap” by equipping people with the necessary digital skills to access vital online services explains Allan.

“An awful lot of our much more vulnerable tenants need to learn how to be online because they can’t access key services,” she says. “A big thing linked to that is jobs and skills. If you are out of work you will struggle to access jobs, apply for courses or anything like that if you don’t have digital skills because most jobs are advertised online and application forms are online.”

Digitally excluded people are also missing out on a range of cost savings such as cheaper energy bills. Research by Lloyds Banking Group on behalf of Doteveryone showed that on average people can save £744 a year just by using online interfaces – with savings being proportionally much higher for people on lower incomes.

But while internet access can have a massive impact on an individual’s financial wellbeing it is far from being the only benefit. It can help boost the academic achievements of children with a link between internet access at home and higher grades at GCSE says Bailey, who highlighted the benefits of supporting young people to prepare for the digital future.

“For this generation their work skills are going to be radically different,” she says. “There was a Government whitepaper which estimated that a third of current jobs won’t exist in 20 years time due to technological changes. So from my perspective we are risking a double digital deficit if we don’t start thinking of ways of supporting young people.”

It can also be hugely beneficial in reducing social exclusion from allowing older residents to keep in touch with family members from across the globe through apps such as Skype, to helping people who are housebound to access hobbies and social forums.

The opportunities are endless says Neaman. “From a social inclusion point of view if people are connected they tend to be more socially included and take greater part in civic events and the democratic process. People improve their economic status which helps the local community and local economy as well; people can manage their health better so you have a healthier, less isolated community and people can be much more financially included, which leads to better lifestyle, living conditions, self esteem etc.

“With connectivity you get much more peer-to-peer interaction so you get people helping each other and you get more local support groups.

“The ultimate outcomes are massive so it might sound trivial to get one person to use the internet but actually if everybody uses the internet then the outcomes can be absolutely transformational for people.”

Organisations such as Doteveryone, community groups and housing providers are all doing their bit to get more people online but as with the reasons behind digital exclusion the solutions can vary greatly.

“There is no one reason why people are excluded and if there is no one reason there won’t be a single solution to help them,” says Neaman. “I think what is important is to look at the needs of your local population and to tailor specific responses to that.”

Doteveryone is working on pilot projects in Croydon and Lewisham working with specific groups such as older people, homeless people and young NEETs.

“The idea is to look at what type of approaches work with these groups of people as it won’t be the same kind of thing,” explains Neaman. “We aim to test and learn and then create replicable approaches that can be rolled out in other parts of the country.”

Berneslai Homes has 23 live digital projects at the moment, the biggest of which is device doctors a partnership with Barnsley Council, which aims to increase people’s confidence using the internet through one-to-one sessions at library sites. Spinning off from that is a supported self-learning scheme, which is currently being piloted and ‘device doctor’ outreach which targets hard to reach groups.

Bailey is also working to improve connectivity in sheltered schemes and is looking into how tools such as Whats App could be used to report repairs.

“I see the core issues as revolving around affordability and pushing that consistent message that the internet isn’t something not to do,” she says.

“We haven’t got a single solution, we evolve our responses based on what we are finding and what we are doing. You benefit in finding out what is important to people and tailoring that support so it is meaningful to them.”

BVT’s Let’s Get Digital campaign, which launched in January, helps residents recognise the benefits of getting online and boosts confidence in using digital technology. It offers support such as free digital drop-in sessions run by the Goodwill Network at the Bournville Community Hub and BVT is constantly reinforcing the benefits of getting online with regular digital updates in its newsletters.

The sessions are targeted around people’s needs and people are able to take along their own equipment such as tablet computers or make use of computers at the venue. Subjects covered so far include internet safety, setting up an email account and how to use Twitter on a mobile phone.

BVT has also provided free wifi in supported housing schemes and flats as well as flagging up wifi hotspots in the community within its newsletters.

Helping people to become digitally included can have a positive impact on housing providers and in the long term BVT, like many other social landlords, will be looking at going digital with some of its services such as rent statements.

“From the individual’s perspective if we are helping people to get more digitally able when it comes to things like welfare reform, economics, jobs and skills, that is for us creating more sustainable tenants which is good for business but it is a two way thing and it is obviously good for them,” says Allan.

While the digital revolution may be well underway, it is clear that there is some way to go before everyone is ready to enter this brave new world.

“It’s a big task, it keeps changing and it is a Pandora’s Box,” says Bailey. “We are in the middle of a digital revolution and it is changing everything – don’t underestimate it.”

 

This article first appeared in the June/July 2016 print edition of Housing magazine

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