The Digital Divide is narrowing
Every year the Office for National Statistics publishes a report on internet usage in the UK. These reports have shown in the past a significant difference in rates of internet use between those in different groupings. For example, In 2016 89.4% of men had recently used the internet, compared with 86.4% of women. People in rural areas, in part due to lack of access, used the internet less frequently than people living in cities. Only 38.7% of people over 75 were recent internet users, compared with 99.4% of people aged between 16 and 24. 25% of disabled adults had never used the internet. Income levels also affected levels of intenet use.
In 2019 the picture is different. 83% of adults aged between 65 and 74 reported that they used the internet in the last three months, compared to 52% in 2011. Usage of the internet by economically inactive adults increased by 19% to 89%. Disabled adults between 16 and 24 years of age are now as likely to use the internet as non-disabled. Usage of the internet by women has increased more rapidly than men since 2011, meaning the rates are close to equal. The figure to the right shows the closing gap in recent internet usage by males and females according to age.
Closing the Digital Divide
There are a number of factors contributing to this narrowing of the digital divide. Regional differences have been reduced by improved national broadband, according to Ofcom. Older people, less inclined to carry around heavy laptops more useful for work-related tasks, have been one of the main drivers of the huge shift to mobile technology. Moreover, as time passes there are more retirees who have already developed digital skills in the workplace. Alongside these factors is growing recognition throughout society that the internet is a fundamental part of modern life. If you aren't online you miss out socially and financially. Increasingly you can't even acheive the essentials of living, such as paying a council tax bill, or obtaining a Freedom Pass, unless you are online.
Assisting this transformation have been the efforts of a number of public, private and third sector partners. In 2104 the UK government announced its Digital Inclusion Strategy, with a commitment to make Britain fully "digitally capable" by 2020. This aim has been taken up by a organisations such as Go ON UK (now Doteveryone), Good Things Foundation, Digital Unite, Age UK, Clarion Futures, SCVO, Citizens Oline and Lloyds Bank. Catbytes has also been part of this effort. In 2014 we started our techy tea clubs, which help older people use their smart phones, tablets and laptops. We have helped close the digital divide. Now that the Government's objective of getting just about everyone online seems to be nearing success, does this mean that our work will soon be over?
Will we acheive full digital equality by 2020?
The answer is probably not. Although the digital divide is narrowing, it is not narrowing in all cases. For example, as the graphic above shows, although the gap in those who have used the internet recently between women and men has generally narrowed between 2011 and 2019, this pattern is not found in people over 75 years of age. Being older than 75 and a woman has so far meant that you are less likely to have been part of the general trend than other groups. There are also disabled people who are not improving significantly in online use. Moreover, technology itself does not stand still. New trends, such as the internet of things, or new social media tools like Snapchat can still leave people who had once been ahead of the curve behind.
Does this matter? Some might say that we should accept that some people are never going to use the internet and forget about them. This is not a reasonable point of view. Avoiding the internet altogether is not like avoiding television. Unlike television, internet traffic moves two ways. One can't just passively imbibe it. It calls us to action. An internet society can demand that we are able to use it in order to access basic services required for living. If there are some people who are unable to get online, for whatever reason, it will be the responsibility of society to bridge this gap.
A common view is that it is the role of the public sector to provide support for those who can't use the internet. This role would usually be taken by councils. However councils are now being faced with cuts. Lewisham council, the borough where Catbytes is based, have had their budget cut by a third. Their response has been to move many services online, without provision for those who aren't internet ready.
Another possibility is that the role of digital champions could be re-purposed. Rather than helping people go online, they could become middle men between non-internet users and public services. This would be fine if digital champions had a way of finding these people. My experience, however, having supported people to use the internet for the last five years, is that it is often the people who are most in need that are hardest to reach. In an internet society where many non-internet points of access are closed, some people may find themselves isolated to a greater degree than has been the case previously. Will we have an increasing number of stories in the future like that of Joyce Carol Vincent, who was discovered in her London flat in 2006, 3 years after she died?
From Digital Champions to Digital Link Workers
One possible development of the digital champion role might be for it to become more like a Digital Link Worker within a social prescribing scheme. They could be a point of reference for NHS staff, and therefore become part of the NHS's Comprehensive Personalised Care Model. Digital Link Workers would have the ability to link people who are not skilled with using the internet to places where they can get support with accessing essential services online. They would also be able to support them in other ways, through their access to online resources that inform them about what is going on in the local area.
Digital inclusion means getting all parts of our society online
However, there is a barrier currently, to what can be done with social prescribing. There is an important part of society that is not on the internet, or not very much. I am talking about the hundreds of coffee mornings, knitting clubs, sit down yoga sessions and men's discussion groups that are going on under the internet radar as we review our local Indian restaurant, or newly opened hipster bar for Google. These clubs can be found on leaflets on cork boards in churches and community centres. Sometimes they appear on these community centres' websites, although not always, as the centres often find it hard to maintain websites. However, they rarely come up in a Google search, and there aren't any websites which specifically enable people to find a local coffee morning as there are websites that enable people to find a local nursery. Unfortunately there is no way to make a website like this profitable as a business, so there is little incentive to create one. By creating sites like these we would be mapping the local community.
Bringing this section of society online is a key component of digital inclusion. It will empower people who want to help link people to the community services that can benefit them. It will be an online solution to a problem that the ubiquity of the online world is in the process of creating. In Lewisham, Tim Bradley OBE has pioneered a project called the Lewisham Wellbeing Map, which is mapping the entire community of Lewisham using a bespoke Google MyMap. It is a great start. If you want to have a look at the map follow this link (best in Chrome Desktop mode): to help build the map get in touch with Tim at LewishamWellbeingMap@gmail.