Helping Scotland get online

Podium1 By 2 on 23/05/2013 12:05 pm


ACCESS to the internet is an essential service in the 21st century. The benefits of being online are significant and well evidenced cheaper goods and products, better job prospects, improved educational attainment, access to a growing array of public services, new sources of advice and information, new ways to communicate with family and friends, and more opportunities for democratic and civic participation.

And as internet technology develops, the range of services available online and the advantages derived from being able to access these will also increase dramatically. This is great news for everyone who is a confident user of digital technology as it becomes ever cheaper, easier and faster to access a whole range of different services and opportunities.

But we have a problem.

At present nearly one-third of households in Scotland do not have access to broadband in their home. In rural areas this lack of access is often due to the poor digital infrastructure and the fact that reliable high-speed broadband may simply not be available. In urban areas, where broadband is widely available, lack of access is increasingly a social justice issue.

Sixty percent of Scottish households with an annual income of less than 17,500 do not have a broadband connection.

This is deeply concerning, as many of those without access arguably have the most to gain from the advantages the internet can offer. The opportunities that the internet provides in relation to employment, education and access to services mean that it could be a really powerful tool in efforts to tackle deep-rooted social and economic inequalities. But we currently have a deep digital divide which means that internet is actually reinforcing rather than tackling these very inequalities.

And as the benefits of being online accrue rapidly in the future, those who are offline are going to fall further and further behind.

At the Carnegie UK Trust we work to improve the wellbeing of people throughout the UK and Ireland. Given the major and growing impact that internet access has on so many different aspects of wellbeing, we believe that action is needed now, to ensure all citizens have the opportunity to take advantage of the benefits that online access can offer.

We are not the only ones who think this. The question of how more people can be supported to use the internet has attracted a great deal of attention from politicians and policymakers in recent months.

The UK Government s stated expectation that 80% of Universal Credit applications will be made online by 2017 has really thrust the debate about internet access into the limelight with considerable evidence already emerging about the problems that many benefit claimants are likely to experience with this new system. Meanwhile, the Big Lottery Fund has just announced a new 15 million investment to improve digital skills across the UK, while the question of how to connect the unconnected was one of the main topics of debate at the high-powered Digital Scotland conference held in Edinburgh earlier this week.

But what action can we take? Well, I would suggest that any strategy to increase internet access needs to understand and address three key questions who is offline, why are they offline, and what approaches might be effective in supporting people to go online in the future?

At the Carnegie UK Trust we have carried out a new research study, working with Ipsos MORI, to try and answer these questions in Glasgow, where approximately 40% of households are offline one of the lowest levels of internet take-up in the UK.

The data that we uncovered in our research, through an examination of existing statistics and new primary research with 200 residents in Glasgow, showed that tackling digital exclusion is extremely complex and challenging. This is because the barriers to getting online can vary significantly for each individual or household. The problem is not limited to any single demographic group, although there are particularly high levels of exclusion amongst pensioners and non-working adults living in social rented accommodation.

Similarly, digital exclusion is not confined to a small number of communities it exists to some degree in almost every local neighbourhood.

There are also many, many different factors which influence why people do not have internet access, and whether they might get access in the future. These factors include: a person s level of trust in technology; how content they are doing things offline (in person or by phone); their level of concern about different aspects of the internet, such as the often confusing telecommunications market or worries about issues such as spam or data protection; and, of course, major concerns about the cost of attaining and maintaining an internet service. The extent to which these different barriers are relevant can vary significantly according to different social and demographic characteristics including age, gender, and whether or not someone is actually keen to go online.

There are also variations in what might motivate people to go online in the future including a desire to look for information that is of particular interest to them, to communicate with others, or to apply for or look for a job.

A one-size fits all approach to tackling digital exclusion is very unlikely to succeed. Instead, a much more sophisticated strategy is needed one which recognises that people experience different barriers to getting online, and takes the needs and motivations of each individual as the starting point for providing the right help and support. Achieving this type of personalised strategy will require significant input from organisations, groups, and volunteers who are already working in different capacities with those who are offline and who are best placed to help find the right hook or spark that can enable someone to begin the journey to digital participation.

It is clear therefore, that charities who are known to and trusted by their local communities are well placed to deliver exactly this type of support.

Indeed, charities have played this very role before in previous initiatives where citizens have been supported to make challenging and difficult changes such as the digital TV switchover programme. The Scottish Government, local authorities and others must take account of the skills and expertise that the third sector can bring to help tackle digital exclusion, as they develop their new plans and strategies for addressing this problem and begin to allocate additional resources to this area. Charities themselves meanwhile need to be increasingly alive to these issues for example they should sign up to the new Scottish Digital Participation Charter and to the vital role that they can play in helping to find the right solutions to enable more individuals and communities to get online.

If the right collaborative approach is achieved then it will be a very important step forward in the ongoing battle to close the digital divide.

The report Across the Divide Tackling Digital Exclusion in Glasgow3 was published by the Carnegie UK Trust in April 2013.

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