Connecting the disconnected
Closing the digital divide has never been more important. While everyone has struggled with the public health restrictions stemming from the global pandemic, for thousands of households in Scotland that feeling of isolation has been more absolute.
Not only has social interaction offline been withdrawn, but so too have online connections. The closure of public libraries, schools and colleges, and even cafés meant the removal of easy access to digital technology, Wi-Fi and support.
“Digital exclusion was one of the top three issues during lockdown, along with access to food and essential supplies, and mental health issues,” the Scottish Council of Voluntary Organisation’s (SCVO) director of development David McNeill said (over a Zoom call, naturally).
The SCVO has been working on improving digital inclusion for the last nine years, with steady progress. It is the last six months though, that has seen the project come into its own.
After successfully getting 7,500 households online between April and July, Connecting Scotland – the Scottish Government initiative managed by the SCVO – has been given an extra £43m to connect 50,000 people by the end of 2021.
The pandemic and lockdown brought into sharp focus the issues for people that were not connected
“There’s been such a huge demand. Getting there won’t be the problem,” says McNeill. He adds: “This is a huge step forward in tackling digital exclusion.”
The problem is not a small one. According to the latest Scottish Household Survey, the number of households with internet access was at a record high of 88 per cent in 2019, but that masks the fact that equates to approximately 300,000 households without access.
Unsurprisingly, this is not evenly distributed across the population. A third of households with an annual income of £10,000 or less have no internet access at home.
And even for those who do have access, it may be limited to a smartphone. Indeed, the children of one family supported by Connecting Scotland had until then been using a mobile for their schoolwork.
Against this backdrop, COVID-19 restrictions inevitably had a disproportionate impact, leading the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, to announce the extension of Connecting Scotland in this year’s Programme for Government. She said: “The past six months have shown that access to the online world is a modern necessity every bit as essential as access to electricity. It is through technology that many of us have continued to work, learn, access life’s essentials and stay in touch with loved ones.”
She added: “By the end of 2021, Connecting Scotland will provide an electronic device, unlimited data, and two years of digital support and training to 50,000 people who would otherwise be without the digital access that the rest of us take for granted. This is a massive step and will help us to end the digital divide once and for all.”
Away from Connecting Scotland, the government and local authorities are also in the process of delivering devices to disadvantaged schoolchildren.
John Swinney announced in May 25,000 Chromebooks would be provided, which are now in the hands of the 18 local authorities who took up the offer to distribute. A further 45,000 devices are expected to be delivered through additional funding for councils.
But having a digital connection at home is not just about being able to work and learn from home, as important as that is for the economy. It is also about mental health and wellbeing.
It may be as simple as gifting someone a streaming subscription – as was the case for an older man with mobility issues and no local family who was given a Netflix account as part of the Govan Housing Association pilot in April.
McNeill said: “The pandemic and lockdown brought into sharp focus the issues for people that were not connected, that didn’t have an appropriate device, that didn’t have the ability to afford an internet connection, and the extent of disadvantage that they face.”
Phase one of the scheme, which ran until July, focused on people who were shielding or otherwise extremely vulnerable.
One beneficiary, Kate, came to the project through the Glasgow Disability Alliance. She was a full time carer for her late husband and has used her new device to keep in touch with friends and family.
She said: “I’m absolutely thrilled to get a device. When you’re isolated, you’ve got nobody. I think it’s a good idea for isolated people to have a tablet.
“To be isolated with this coronavirus, all we’ve got to the outside world is a phone and a tablet. My life will change, definitely. I’m determined to learn it and get online.”
The Glasgow Disability Alliance is just one of over 450 organisations partnered with Connecting Scotland, alongside all 32 local authorities.
“The whole programme has been an example of really successful cross-sector partnership,” McNeill explained. “We’ve had local voluntary organisations – the organisations that are actually distributing the devices and providing support – range from your neighbourhood centre that are working with a couple of older people through to housing associations that are taking hundreds of devices and giving them to their vulnerable tenants.
“We’ve worked with local authorities to prioritise the groups that are needed locally and connect them up with other types of support. Local authorities have been really key as well.
“And then we’ve had the private sector that have provided additional support, in terms of training support from Apple and Google and other tech companies.”
The current phase is looking at families with children (including pregnant women) and care leavers under 26. It is a broad group with a range of different needs.
Some pilot projects saw devices given to young pregnant women with little support, who were able to use them to interact with their midwife and other services. Other projects saw tablets given to families with very young children, who would not be using the devices themselves, while for others it was about giving older children access to the online world.
For care leavers too the programme will be a lifeline. The group already faces a higher chance of living in poverty and the inequalities that come with that. As a CELCIS briefing in the lead up to phase two stated: “[COVID-19] has highlighted the critical importance of a reliable IT connection as a lifeline for young people, connection with workers, support services, utilities (e.g. banking) and friends and family. Fair and equitable access is fundamental to ensuring social connection and supporting positive mental health and emotional wellbeing.”
Connecting Scotland has already received hundreds of applications from the third sector working with these groups. The first devices will be issued in November.
Expanding digital inclusion is vital for the health of the economy and of Scotland’s people.
Meanwhile the Scottish Government is considering which other groups are particularly digitally excluded and should be prioritised in future rounds. Older people could be one of them – a pilot project is currently underway in care homes, testing the appropriateness of different models in those settings.
Age Scotland’s chief executive Brian Sloan said: “We were delighted to see many older people’s groups and projects across Scotland included on the list of those benefiting from funding under phase one of the programme and it would be interesting to see a more in-depth analysis of how this has positively impacted older people.
“However, one-off interventions will not be enough to reach everyone who is digitally excluded. We must continue to increase accessibility of technology to older people and ensure they get the long-term support and training necessary to stay safe and feel confident online – and that they know where to access this in the first instance.”
Aside from cost, this is the other barrier to people adapting to new technologies: skills and confidence.
The SCVO has experience in this. Since 2018, the organisation has been training Digital Champions to help those lost in the face of technology. These are not technical experts. They are the frontline workers and volunteers at the organisations many disadvantaged communities already trust.
McNeill said: “What’s really important, what works best, is embedding that digital support in a service that those vulnerable people are already working with. That might be an employability project, a mental health project, other social services or care services.
“Our approach, that we’ve continued in Connecting Scotland, has been to build confidence and skills of those frontline workers to then pass on digital skills and confidence to the end users. It’s that trusted relationship that’s crucial.”
Much of the support the Champions provided pre-pandemic is still relevant now: supporting people to set up email accounts, helping them access video calling, or even showing them how to use YouTube to find content about their hobbies and interests.
The internet has long stopped being a luxury for the privileged few. Access has become a necessity to participate in much of modern life. Expanding digital inclusion is vital for the health of the economy and of Scotland’s people.
Or, as McNeill put it: “It’s crucial, because it’s not just getting people online for the sake of using the internet. We all use the internet for fun things, being entertained, but during lockdown there’s social connections and the ability to connect with other people.”