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?

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‘I talked with my tech communities, including BCS, UK IT Leaders, Horizon CIO Network, CIO Water Cooler, HotTopics, Computing, Tech Monitor and Charity IT Leaders and that meant I engaged with 90,000 professionals.

I’ve also spoken to those already involved in this space, such as the Prince’s Trust.
‘I found there are more than 70 initiatives donating equipment. I was overwhelmed by the support.

‘All I wanted to do is find hope, to signpost tech professionals and others to where and how to help. But we need to join up the dots. Currently, what I have seen is great, especially the local initiatives, but they don’t go far enough.

‘If then we don’t do something about coordinating all the efforts - from communities through to IT leaders, everyone will contribute to the most obvious space - donating money and equipment - and we need to go beyond that.’

As well as providing equipment, Freddie said tech support was needed, along with teaching people digital skills and educating them in online skills. Plus, there must be ongoing communications about career opportunities in the sector, the vital role of tech in our society and the impact of the digital divide. Last but not least, implementing governance, risk management and compliance, specifically around online safety and cyber essentials. IT professionals, he added, had a central role to play in all of this.

4. The role of government

To solve the issue of digital poverty - which includes connectivity, access to devices and the skills to use technology - Helen Milner said the role of the government was fundamental: ‘The government needs to lead this. At the moment the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport leads on digital inclusion as a policy area; the Department for Education works with children, and the Department for Work and Pensions with people who are unemployed and older.

‘What we need is a national plan that’s across the government, led by Number 10. By saying that the government should lead it, I’m not saying that the business sector doesn’t have a role - it should be a national plan, led by the government and delivered with and across all sectors, including business.

‘For those of you working in business, I would encourage you to see this as a priority and it’s great that the BCS does have it as a priority.

‘The charity sector has a role too and we need to make sure we all collaborate to fix the digital divide, give ourselves a time scale and make sure that we’re not duplicating, but are collaborating at the national and the local level.’

‘We are also seeing innovation across the devolved nations and regions of the UK, with Scotland, Wales and city regions like Greater Manchester and the West Midlands among others demonstrating different but strong leadership to tackle the digital divide.

‘One of the problems is that government seems to worry that if they show some leadership, they will be expected to pay for it all. But this is not about them paying for everything, this is about them bringing leadership and their convening power to how we deal with it.’

Professor George said the setting up of one body to coordinate everything is vital: ‘The aim of the Digital Poverty Alliance is that organisations become signatories and use the alliance as a coordination hub to provide expertise and thought leadership.

‘This is about trying to bring together the people who are already passionate about this space. When brought together they can be a strong voice that can speak to the government about tackling this issue.’

Such a plan was welcomed by Freddie Quek: ‘The Digital Poverty Alliance will provide a steer. National doesn’t just mean the government; we have to have a holistic and systematic approach to solving this that is sustainable and far-reaching.’

5. Next steps

Professor George said: ‘I would love BCS to be more involved and I’m looking forward to exploring the role of professional bodies and how individual members can make a positive impact to close that digital divide.

‘The DPA hasn’t looked at communities yet so I’d love to see if there is space in the DPA for communities as well.’

Helen Milner said: ‘I’m more hopeful now than I’ve ever been that we could have a digital inclusion strategy for the UK that is going to work.’

Freddie Quek said: ‘What is clear to me though, is that if we continue to do this without any top-down support it’s not going to go anywhere. I welcome the Digital Poverty Alliance as it’s a fantastic space that will allow us to join the dots.’

Tackling digital poverty is one of four main themes of John Higgins’s presidency priorities for BCS alongside improving diversity and inclusion, championing green IT and sustainable technology while driving professionalism across the IT and digital industries. In his closing statement, John Higgins said: ‘This is about formulating how best we can put our shoulder to the wheel. We will definitely do our bit.’