With an increased digital focus in the wake of COVID-19, it is more important than ever to acknowledge those being left behind – and to do something about it
With charities often leading social change and progress, the sector is ideally placed to support people who might otherwise be left behind. As the reality of the digital divide emerges, there are multiple reasons why charities should be championing digital inclusion.
Whilst tapping on a smartphone or switching on a laptop to get online is second nature to most of us, this is not the case for everyone. There are wide swathes of digitally excluded people across the population. They have limited or no access to digital tech and the internet, affecting their ability to use many of the services available online. The ONS annual survey of internet users (2019) says that 7.5% of UK adults had never accessed the internet, with 9% not having accessed the internet in the last 3 months.
The impact of digital exclusion is significant. Many essential services now require online access: from shopping for food, to healthcare, and access to housing and benefits. Without access to digital tech, enormous numbers of people are essentially cut off from necessary services for day to day living. Along with the obstacles in getting the latest tech, people may also feel that they lack the necessary skills and find going online either a hassle or simply too daunting to even try.
Promoting digital inclusion to reach digitally excluded people is vital. There are several initiatives being rolled out to tackle the issue. Citizens Online works with Digital Unite to assist people to become Digital Champions. Digital Champions can help take the sting out of going online and make the process smoother and easier. They help other people learn about the wide array of advantages of using the internet and show people how to do so. They do not need to be major digital experts, just familiar and adept with using the internet and keen to help people embrace digital.
The NHS is getting involved, too. Their Widening Digital Participation initiative is being delivered by the Good Things Foundation. Phase One (2013-16) sought to help people develop digital skills and 221,000 received training. Phase Two (2017-2020) focuses on obstacles to digital inclusion and how to surmount them, working with a range of people including homeless people, young carers, people with long term conditions, older people and more.
Several charities are working to drive digital inclusion. By focusing on the groups that are traditionally excluded and leaning on their experience and understanding of the needs of their service users, charities have been able to cater to the digitally excluded.
Age UK have lots of information about COVID-19 available online and also publish free tech guides for older people to understand online safety and how to contact friends and family through video calls. Their advice line is always open to provide support and guidance to anyone who is stuck. They also provide info for carers and family members to help elders grasp the basics.
Charities have also demonstrated flexibility in championing digital inclusion. Having taken services online during the COVID-19 lockdown, some digital leaders have found the internet to be an avenue for new audiences. They can continue helping existing service users along with more people who need their help.
Dingley’s Promise, a charity working with under 5s with additional needs and disabilities has expanded and amped up its Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Instagram presence. The charity has also engaged with and used print media and radio during Coronavirus.
"We have been forced to quickly shift to digital, remote support and information sharing and are finding that we can reach more people and have an even bigger impact than before.
As such, we are likely to continue with a number of the online activities even after the end of lockdown."
- Catherine McLeod - CEO
Charities have been working to ensure that the right resources are available to people to get online and harness the full power of the internet and digital tech. Lockdown has revealed that many students do not have the necessary tools to get online to study. Teach First, an education charity, are urging internet providers to supply free Wi-Fi hotspots and broadband, as well as trying to get donated devices for students to use.
Digital inclusion is also helping to keep people safe out there. Mama Health and Poverty Partnership, a group of organisations supporting BAME African women and girls, is hoping to help those at risk of domestic violence by hiding pre-paid handsets in food packages being delivered to vulnerable people.
Multiple charities have reported that providing their services online has enabled them to reach many, many more people including people experiencing mental health difficulties, learning disabilities and deaf people. Championing digital inclusion also requires an examination of wider issues around inclusion to ensure that the needs of people are considered in closing the digital divide.