Digital Technology Must Be for Everyone 

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Karen Lewis and Dan Roberts argue that we need to make sure that technology doesn’t isolate people even further.

This month, the Wales Co-operative Centre hosted the Tech Fest for Social Good, as part of Digital Leaders Week 2020. 

Throughout the week-long event we learned about the fascinating new technologies that are being used in Wales with potential to have a significant positive impact on people’s lives. 

From the use of Virtual Reality to improve the wellbeing of people in care homes, to digital platforms allowing social enterprises to reach more people than ever before, the opportunities for growth and development that come from tech are clear. 

But before we continue this journey, it is essential that we remember those who are not currently able to access the digital world. The National Survey for Wales 2019/20 found that 10% of adults in Wales do not use the internet. 

This year the Covid-19 crisis has impacted our lives in a number of different ways, and made digital services more essential than ever, from keeping in touch with our friends and relatives to ordering essentials. 

According to the recent “Learning from Lockdown” report by the Carnegie UK Trust, “the scale of digital exclusion in the UK has been exposed and exacerbated beyond previous understanding”. 

We must ensure that as we ‘build back better’, the technologies we use are inclusive of all in our communities, especially those who need support and change the most. 

Who is Digitally Excluded? 

There is evidence that the Covid-19 crisis has exacerbated existing digital inequalities. This is particularly important in the context of public health. 

“While 87% of 16-29 year olds reported using digital technology to support their health, this fell to just 24% of those aged 70 and older.”

Public Health Wales have stated that digital technology will be at the heart of their approach to improving health and wellbeing, helping them to “predict, prevent and treat ill-health”. 

Their 2019 survey suggested that two thirds of people in Wales use digital technology to support their health. However, there is significant variation across demographics – while 87% of 16-29 year olds reported using digital technology for this reason, this fell to just 24% of those aged 70 and older.

The “Leave No-one Behind” report from the Older People’s Commissioner for Wales highlighted that “[Exclusion] has been a particular issue for older people who are not online, and the pandemic has highlighted a stark digital divide in Wales”.

As well as this, the Public Health Wales survey said that while 84% of people in the least deprived quintile of the Welsh public used digital technology to support their health, this fell to 51% in the most deprived quintile. 

The Covid-19 crisis has made digital services an essential part of managing and supporting our health. GP practices in Wales have launched a new system of online appointments with doctors and other healthcare professionals, extending video consultations to secondary and community care.

It is therefore of crucial importance that those most in need of these services can access them and are not digitally excluded. This is just one example of how digital is becoming an essential and presumed part of our lives. Lockdowns, working from home and developments in technology have all made access to digital more important than ever, impacting our lives in a variety of ways. 

What Causes Digital Exclusion? 

Getting to the root of digital exclusion has never been more important. The four main barriers to participation have been identified by the Good Things Foundation as Motivation, Cost, Skills, and Connectivity.

The Covid-19 crisis has had the most obvious impact in terms of motivation, as people are suddenly forced to go online to do things they have always done as part of daily living; connecting with family, doing the weekly shop, and managing their health. But while some have successfully taken the steps to get online, we must not forget those who have been unable to do so. 

Having the skills necessary to get online, or being digitally literate, is taken for granted by many of us, but for some in our communities the idea is an intimidating one.

“The learning gaps between poorer and richer primary school children widened during lockdown.”

It’s also important to remember that the issue isn’t black and white – just 40% of internet users had, in the last three months, performed online activities associated with all five basic digital skills; communicating, handling information and content, transacting, problem solving, and being safe and legal online. 95% of people used a search engine, 88% sent a message via email or instant messaging and 79% bought goods or services online.

It is not just an issue of skills or confidence either –poverty is strongly linked to digital exclusion and we have seen stark evidence of this amongst children and young people during the pandemic.

There have been examples in Wales of some children in our communities losing out educationally as learning has moved out of the classroom and into homes. This has been as a result of a lack of effective internet access or digital devices, despite the work of the Welsh Government in this area.

According to research by the Institute of Fiscal Studies, the learning gaps between poorer and richer primary school children widened during lockdown. This will have long-term implications for the next generations and is something that must be addressed as a priority.

The question is – what can we do to make sure the opportunities of developments in digital technology, that were showcased at our Tech Fest for Social Good last week, are available and accessible to everyone? 

Digital Communities Wales and Partners 

The Wales Co-operative Centre is committed to digital inclusion and our Digital Communities Wales’ programme has been crucial throughout the Covid-19 period.

“We can no longer consider digital inclusion to be an extra piece of work – it has to be central to everything we do.”

One of the most rewarding ways in which have served our communities is by enabling people  living in  care homes to access the Internet through loaned digital devices under lockdown. This, as well as the training they received from our experienced trainers, helped many people stay in contact with their loved ones during incredibly difficult times.

This ‘device loan scheme’ was made possible thanks to Welsh Government support, and the real-life impact this had on people’s wellbeing showed how important this policy area is and can be. 

As well as the clear positive impact this scheme has had, it has been an opportunity to develop a deeper understanding of the barriers leading to digital isolation in care homes in Wales.

It has been noted that some care homes do not have Wi-Fi access, while others have it only in certain areas such as an office or staff room. Those that do not have Wi-Fi need a SIM-enabled device to connect to a mobile network. But many care homes are located in rural areas with poor network coverage, meaning that connectivity is not straightforward.

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The real learning outcome from this experience has been that we can no longer consider digital inclusion to be an extra piece of work – it has to be central to everything we do.

Public services are now digital by default, and this necessitates putting digital inclusion work at the heart of what we do. To do this successfully, we need the values of co-production to be embedded in our policy-making processes, and the voice of the digitally excluded must be heard throughout.

Conclusion 

At the Wales Co-operative Centre we are determined to play our part in ensuring that digital inclusion is one of the key priorities for the Welsh Government and the country as a whole as we battle Covid-19 and recover from it.

The enormous potential to be realised from harnessing the power of digital technology is there for all to see , but we must  ensure that everybody is able to benefit from these significant developments.

The way we live, and work has changed, making being online more important than ever, and this will continue to be the case for the foreseeable future. 

The work of Digital Communities Wales shows the positive impact that can be had in this area, but there is still much to be done and every one of us who has the opportunity to make things better for digitally excluded people needs to play their part. 

Digital inclusion is everybody’s business, and we stand ready to support the key actors in our society to step up to the challenge of making Wales a truly digitally included nation. 

All articles published on the welsh agenda are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

Dan Roberts is Policy and Research Officer at the Wales Co-operative Centre.
Karen Lewis is Director of External Engagement at the Wales Co-operative Centre.

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