Research by the IDS Digital and Technology cluster is shining a spotlight on the impact of persistent digital inequalities in the US and UK. Shifting services online threatens to exclude the most marginalised.
As communities across the UK go into stricter lockdowns, digital connectivity is going to be essential for people who this year might be celebrating Christmas or Hanukkah alone, away from friends and family. This comes at the end of a year which has provided a snapshot of the reality of a ‘hyper-digital’ world following the rapid digitization of services and activities across many areas of social and economic life; from patients accessing health services through telemedicine to school children only being able to attend classes through remote learning in the early months of the pandemic. In our working lives, we have seen how people with online skills are able to leverage them in well-paid remote work, whereas the less educated with less formally recognised skills are less likely to be online and more likely to work in vulnerable low-paying, unstable gig work.
In the UK there is a misapprehension that everyone is online when, according to analysis published in 2019, 11% of the population say they cannot turn on a digital device, and 13% cannot open up an app. Compared to the UK average, unemployed individuals are 64% more likely to lack adequate ‘Essential Digital Skills‘ for life 22% of those claiming the welfare payment ‘Universal Credit’ need help to complete the online application form ). This prompted the United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights to comment that digital delivery of the UK Universal Credit (UC) welfare system “has built a digital barrier that effectively obstructs many individuals’ access to their entitlements” .
The shift to a ‘hyper digital’ world raises fundamental questions about our working lives in the future which the ESRC funded Digital Futures at Work Research centre has been founded to answer. As part of Research Track 4, ‘Reconnecting the disconnected: new channels of voice and representation’, Becky Faith and Kevin Hernandez from the IDS Digital and Technology Cluster have been carrying out in research in Brighton, Barking and Dagenham in London, and in New York to understand the impact of the digitisation of services on communities with intermittent and poor digital connectivity. We are finding that people face significant barriers both in accessing social protection systems online and looking for work. Intersecting forms of exclusion – such as disability or migration status – are resulting in deeper exclusion for some members of the community.
Our research has found that meaningful connectivity is not just about device ownership and getting online; the challenges 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 did not have the skills because they had not previously used digital tools in their working life.
One interviewee who teaches ESOL classes to migrants in NYC highlighted an experience of one of her clients who was able to navigate their digital device for everyday use but did not have the digital skills her potential employer needed. The Covid-19 pandemic has also had dramatic impact by disrupting digital connectivity for users that rely on libraries and community centres to get online. Trying to rely on handheld smart phones for complex welfare or job applications is very challenging. A Council worker described the challenges faced by a client trying to fill in a form online: “There was one lady was here and I actually saw her through the whole afternoon trying to make a UC [Universal Credit] claim and she only got through half of it and it was virtually impossible. And I think saying that you can do things, everyone’s got a mobile phone, but it doesn’t mean to say that they got credit and it doesn’t mean to say that it’s the easiest thing to fill in an online form.”
In many areas, the voluntary and community sector has had to step up to fill the gaps and provide vital digital connections to excluded and lonely people. One example is in Brighton, where charity TogetherCo changed to an entirely digital model to provide more than 450 isolated people with virtual befriending support every week. Delivered through internet video calls, volunteers provide emotional but also practical support to those who experience chronic loneliness.
To better understand the experience of those disconnected within communities, we partnered with Digital Brighton and Hove and Citizens Online through the UKRI Higher Education Fund at the University of Sussex to provide tablet computer and remote technical support via digital champions . These tablets are helping people access skills training and job sites with support from Digital Brighton and Hove. The impact of the incredible work done by digital Champions is highlighted by a video showing how people with dementia are being supported to use tablets get connected to friends and family.
As we go into 2021, there can be no doubt that we are facing a bleak economic and employment outlook, particularly when it comes to relying on UK charities to ‘gap fill’ service provision when they face a 48% decline in income. Unemployment is likely to continue to rise more leading to more and more people needing to claim benefits and apply for jobs online. This makes it imperative that we address digital exclusion however much it is seen as intractable and politically unattractive.
At IDS, when we consider the potential for ‘Post-Pandemic Transformations’ within societies we are focussed to impact mitigation ‘rooted in local networks and solidarities’ . Our universalist approach to development means that we are examining communities globally and in our own neighbourhoods. For example, at a local level, impact mitigation of the cost of digital connectivity might mean free Wi-Fi in line with the Citizen’s Wi-Fi being rolled out in Adur and Worthing. Change is needed for as it stands, digital infrastructure is designed to meet the needs of extractivist models of “data colonialism” to booster the profits of big tech platforms. Already, there are calls for new models of publicly-owned infrastructure based on the principles of Universal Basic Services which take basic needs out of commodified relations.
Without doubt, in uncertain times, we need robust, comprehensive research more than ever particularly into the myriad of impacts from accelerating digital inequalities. Our hope is that post-pandemic transformations could open up the possibility of new kinds of digital infrastructure that unlock innovative, inclusive approaches– Universal Basic Services could be the first example of many.