Digital inclusion: At risk of falling behind
As technology accelerates at unprecedented levels, transforming public services, social interactions, and our concept of safety, leaving people behind in the digital journey has been a pressing concern within society.
The pandemic highlighted the issue, showing how connectivity and having a digital device were key components for daily life to continue.
In 2019, research commissioned by the UK Government revealed that 82 per cent of all jobs in the UK will require digital skills, yet a report by Inspiring Scotland suggested that by 2020 approximately one million Scots did not have the essential basic digital skills.
Although there has been progress, the cost-of-living crisis has shaped yet another obstacle in the efforts to close the gap. As of 2022, four per cent of those aged over 18 said they would give up personal internet to pay their other bills. This translates to 170,000 adults in Scotland becoming newly digitally excluded due to growing financial pressures.
Last November, realising the need for clarity and help going forward, the Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO) revealed their digital inclusion roadmap, underpinned by the belief that "engaging online should always be a choice".
The document outlined motivation, an appropriate device, affordability, skills, and an inclusive design as the five challenges to address going forward.
Holyrood spoke to Sally Dyson, head of digital & development at SCVO, about the roadmap, how digital exclusion puts Scotland in a disadvantaged position, and how she hopes 2024 will be the year everyone understands they have a part to play in closing the gap.
What inspired you to take on this initiative?
I had an inkling of how important being connected and digitally included was long ago. I've been working in this field for the best part of 30 years and even when a computer was something that you only had on your desktop at work, I was already thinking about those who maybe were living in social housing and didn't have access to the internet, and how that would impact their future.
Since then, everything has accelerated. Specifically, the impact being connected has on people with lower incomes or in areas with little connectivity. For example, if you're paying for goods and services, then you are likely to be paying more for goods and services offline than you are online. Also, by keeping connected, you are reducing the potential for loneliness and social isolation, particularly for people who live in far-flung areas. The boost it has on economic prosperity, and social well-being is massive. So that's why I got involved.
The roadmap currently has five challenges. Which is the most pressing one?
I would say affordability is the most pressing and this applies to both devices and connectivity. We’re currently looking at a cost-of-living crisis where people who have been connected in the past are having to think carefully about where they spend their money and, one of the things they could easily let go of is their ability to be connected, or to upgrade a device. So it's not only becoming even more difficult for people who haven't been connected before, but also people who have been connected are now falling into this gap. They may have the skills and the confidence, but they just don't have the money.
Talking about upgrading your device the roadmap mentions shelf life quite often. Do you think people should be more aware of the lifespan different devices have?
I think people should understand what different manufacturers are building as part of their initial thinking around buying a device, especially as once you get hooked into a brand you tend to stay with them because you become familiar with how their devices work.
It's also now an environmental factor. Why are we buying something that's got an inbuilt destruction period of kind of maybe three to four years maximum, when a lot of the precious metals in there will end up in landfill?
And what impacts do you think digital exclusion can have on other sectors?
Digital affects every single path of our lives. Particularly in the NHS, we’re looking at new technologies such as AI, and the fantastic things it can do.
However, we also need to make sure that people have the skills and understanding of literacy so that our approach to digital is always from a person-centric perspective.
For example, when you're looking after somebody in the hospital, you should think closely about the human intervention that people need, and letting the technology take the weight that it can. Many jobs in health and care cannot be replaced by technology and must involve human-to-human contact.
Multiple different technology initiatives are happening to take a burden off an overstretched NHS, such as virtual hubs where people can have online access to appointments, documents, etc.
What do you think is the impact digital exclusion will have on the success of these initiatives?
There are two things that I'd reflect on. One concerns service design. So, when you're thinking about a service and whether it is online, offline, or hybrid, we need to make sure that people who we want to use that service are involved in the design to understand how it is going to be helpful to them and how they are going to use it.
The other part goes from identifying what you can do in terms of helping somebody else to get online, to industry looking at how they can reduce the cost of connectivity so that more people can access it. It is also important for employers to not assume that people come with the skills that they need to do a particular activity. So, overall, just recognising that everybody's got a bit of a role to play in all of this and that by pulling together, we can make sure everybody comes along that journey.
How is a lack of awareness linked to digital inclusion?
When we talk to people who aren't online or who are not regularly online, the first thing that they say is “It’s a scary place and all my time is going to get sucked away.”
So, understanding that it's not an entirely fearful place but also a place of connection with your family and friends which can help your mental health, a place where you can keep an eye on your bank account safely and can open up new communities of something that you’re interested in is very important.
Then, in terms of encouraging people of working age, we must show them that learning about these new technologies and how to use them safely will increase the jobs available to them or enhance their careers.
What do you think are the top skills that should be taught to start tackling digital exclusion?
I think people need to be taught about safety, literacy, and cybersecurity. So, explain how to behave carefully online like looking for the little locked padlock for a safer website, not giving your credit card details away, or not giving people more information than you would if you were face-to-face with somebody.
The roadmap mentions a lot about the pace at which technology is accelerating.
How do you think we should manage this?
“Technology has never moved this quickly and will never move this slowly again” as I believe the Moore's Law says. However, the fundamental skills you need to stay safe online have been fairly constant for several years, so it's about making sure that people have those skills so they can later build on these.
Talking about support, do you think the issue has received enough support from the Scottish Government or authorities in general?
Yes and no. It’s a mixed picture
The Scottish Government in particular, and other local authorities across Scotland have had a varying level of understanding, awareness and support for people around digital inclusion for 10 to 15 years from specific departments and that's a really progressive basis to start from. However, it's usually departments that have the title ‘digital’ in them. There hasn’t been a universal awareness and drive across all departments.
This is the digital inclusion design piece that we’re advocating for in the Road Map. I feel as though, for some, it's seen as somebody else's problem. So that would be where I'm giving a mixed, yes and no response. I don't think enough consideration has been given to digital inclusion across every aspect of service development. A bit of buck passing because ‘someone else, or a different department will make sure everyone is digitally included. This is why the road map is really important because it is just bringing it back to the basics. Digital Inclusion needs everyone to be involved. It needs thought and investment in the same way that all education and health care need investment as it also underpins many elements and activitie
Digital inclusion was not part of the Scottish budget. How can it be seen as a priority in the current economic environment?
Should digital inclusion be a priority? Yes. Will it be a priority? I'm less hopeful. Why do I think it should be a priority? Because it's a preventative measure. By investing in digital inclusion people are going to be better educated and lead healthier lives which is going to lead to greater economic prosperity. So, it is about the long-term investment.
In 2021, the Scottish Governemnt pledged to give every child in Scotland a laptop by 2026. However, as of the latest statistics, less than 20 per cent have received a device. What are your thoughts on this?
Well, not every child will need to be provided with a device by the education authorities. Some families are perfectly capable of providing children and themselves with more than enough devices. And it is important to understand that one type of device isn't enough as people need a range to be able to do different things.
However, I do think we need to make sure that devices are made available to everybody. And this isn't about one device, per family, it is about a range of devices. If that's not possible, we must look at other mechanisms like device lending libraries. However, it is important to say these aren't perfect as they're short term, and we need long term solutions.
Do you believe that the approach should be centralised or decentralised?
I think it should be both. We need to look at who can give the best value at specific in the journey. There has to be some central government intervention and some local intervention to make sure that we create this safety net to move people from where they are integrated across digital inclusion.
And if a pandemic was to happen tomorrow, what would the situation be like?
I don't think we would face the same problems because I think we have improved. However, what I would hope if we had another lockdown is that we were more careful about how we went online, and how we were supporting people and that's to do with the design piece. It's not ok for three children to just have access to one device for education. But I think we'd be faster off the starting blocks.
What are your hopes and hopes for 2024?
My hope for 2024 is that people will see, read, and understand the digital inclusion roadmap so they can know what part they can play and start to do so.
What do you think will happen if digital exclusion is not tackled?
It’s really simple for me – we will widen the poverty gap. Digital inclusion is part of social inclusion.