Digital poverty was the subject of a lively discussion on a recent BCS webinar - ‘Tackling the digital divide’. But solving the issue is more complicated than donating laptops to school children. Claire Penketh reports.

Bridging the gap: 5 takeaways on digital poverty
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Three eminent panellists looked at how best to tackle digital poverty. Helen Milner OBE, CEO of Good Things Foundation; Danielle George MBE President of the Institution of Engineering and Technology and Professor of Electronic Engineering at the University of Manchester; and Freddie Quek, Chief Technology Officer, Times Higher Education and Fellow of BCS. The event was hosted by the BCS President, John Higgins CBE.

1. Setting the scene - just how bad is digital poverty - and why does it matter?

The pandemic has massively increased our use of technology and it now plays a vital role in our daily lives. In the introduction to the Tackling the digital divide webinar, the BCS President, John Higgins summed it up by saying: ‘Tech is now such an integral part of how we work, live and play.’

But it has also shone a spotlight on those who have access to technology - and have the skills to use it - and those who don’t and are excluded.

Good Things Foundation CEO, Helen Milner OBE, made the point that digital poverty affects a significant proportion of the population: ‘In the UK there are nine million adults who are digitally excluded. It’s massively aligned with poverty and income levels.

‘There’s also a north / south divide so in the southeast of England 49% of adults are what’s called extensive internet users, but in the northeast that goes down to 18%.

‘It’s not okay that we live in the fifth richest country in the world and that we still have the digital divide to such an extent.’

The Institution of Engineering and Technology (IET) is a professional body for engineers. Its President, Professor Danielle George MBE said: ‘In the charitable objectives of the IET we state that we will promote the general advancement of science, engineering and technology.

‘Tackling the digital divide is far too large for one organisation to take on alone, which is why the IET, with our partner, the Learning Foundation, is working to establish an alliance with organisations that can work together.

‘We’ve recently formed the Digital Poverty Alliance to tackle this issue for all by working collaboratively with other organisations. This is not just a next-generation issue, as Helen said, it’s an adult issue as well, but we are particularly focusing on disadvantaged children over the next five to ten years.

‘If many children can’t access STEM initiatives, then there is a whole demographic with whom we are not able to engage. This is a real challenge for us and that is why we want to tackle it.’

For Freddie Quek, Chief Technology Officer, Times Higher Education and a Fellow of BCS said the reason he wanted to get involved was personal: ‘This COVID period has made many of us take our social responsibilities more seriously and for me, that wasn’t just as a tech leader. I am a parent and I’m concerned for the whole generation of our children.’

2. A coordinated approach is needed

All panellists agreed a lot of great initiatives are taking place all over the country - but the problem is bringing them all together.

Helen Milner said: ‘We know that it’s going to be essential for building back for the recovery that we close this digital divide. We should set ourselves an ambitious target and look to fix the digital divide for all ages within this decade.

‘To do that, we need a single coherent plan, not a thousand flowers blooming. In the emergency phase, there have been so many excellent initiatives. But now we need to move on to the sustainability phase - and that needs a single ambition and coherent plan.’

3. Laptops alone are not the answer

Freddie Quek spent six weeks gathering information about what was happening across the country to tackle digital poverty. He did this after he was approached to help raise funds for laptops for three schools in a deprived area of the northeast: ‘It was so hard to raise enough money to fund a few laptops, never mind 160. I talked to other IT leaders and many charities and realised that donating equipment was the obvious place to start - but was it the right place for all of us to start from?

‘My survey was a very grassroots attempt to talk to everyone. I asked two questions - what is already happening and who would like to help?