Impact Story

Connecting the digitally disconnected

Published on 28 June 2021

Covid-19 has highlighted more than ever the great importance of digital connectivity. Yet, as research by the IDS Digital and Technology Cluster shows, persistent digital inequalities in the UK and the US threaten to exclude the most marginalised.

Services and activities across many areas of social and economic life were already shifting online before the pandemic began. But the past year has provided a snapshot of the reality of a ‘hyper-digital’ society. People with digital skills can obtain well-paid remote work and support. Those who are less educated with fewer formally recognised skills are less likely to be online, more likely to work in vulnerable low-paying, unstable gig work and more likely to lack the digital skills needed to obtain key welfare support.

Fundamental questions about our future working lives are raised by this rapid digitisation of services and support – questions that the Digital Futures at Work Research Centre was set up to answer. The University of Sussex co-leads the centre, known as Digit, which began work in January 2020 with a five-year investment from the Economic and Social Research Council and which includes IDS among its research co-leaders.

IDS explores digitisation impacts

As part of Digit’s Research Track 4, ‘Reconnecting the disconnected: new channels of voice and representation’, researchers from the IDS Digital and Technology Cluster have been conducting research in Brighton, Barking and Dagenham (London), and New York to understand the impact of digitised services on communities with intermittent and poor digital connectivity.

Their findings show that people face significant barriers, both in accessing social protection systems online and in looking for work. Intersecting forms of exclusion – such as disability or migration status – are resulting in deeper exclusion for members of some communities.

The research found that meaningful connectivity is not just about device ownership and getting online – the challenges that people face are often caused by a lack of basic digital skills and the cost of data. This includes people who are forced to apply for jobs online yet who lack the skills to do so because they did not use digital tools in their previous work.

Supporting economic development

The economic impacts of the pandemic mean that more and more people are likely to need to claim welfare benefits and apply for jobs online. To understand better the experience of those who are disconnected, the IDS Digital and Technology Cluster partnered with Digital Brighton and Hove and Citizens Online in July 2020 to help people with limited or no digital skills. The project provided tablet computers and assistance to use these through tailored, one-to-one technical help from digital champions. It was funded through the UKRI Higher Education Innovation Fund Covid-19 Response at the University of Sussex, and was part of the work for Research Track 4.

The project is enabling people who are digitally disconnected and who are referred through job centres and employment initiatives to access skills training, job sites and state welfare, with help from Digital Brighton and Hove. According to analysis published by Lloyds Bank in 2019, compared to the UK average, unemployed individuals are 64 per cent more likely to lack adequate ‘Essential Digital Skills’ for life.


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