Being digitally excluded has a huge impact on everyday aspects of life, from lack of access to significant social improvements, to health and social care, write Dave Donaghy CITP CEng FRSA MBCS and Tom Crick MBE CEng FLSW FBCS.

We have all become increasingly aware of the impact of the new ‘digital normal’: Zoom, Teams and other online communications tools are now a part of everyday life for many of us, alongside continuing trends with social media usage and consuming news and entertainment online.

These tools and platforms have often provided great value to those of us able to use them, in a society that has changed drastically since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, around 18 months ago. In particular, we have seen the significant impact on education and young people, across all settings and contexts.

But many of us have not been able to take advantage of the benefits they offer, being excluded from this new normal. Perhaps through the inability to access appropriate devices, inability to use them effectively, or even unreliable and expensive bandwidth / connectivity.

This is digital exclusion: the exclusion from what was once simply one technological aspect of our future, but which is now entrenched as an everyday part of life covering a huge range of issues, from significant social improvements to a gateway to health and social care. More importantly, this appears to be unevenly distributed across sections of society.

This article follows on from a 2020 piece entitled Digital poverty and digital capital and highlights the progress that has been made since its publication. Thankfully, these issues have increased in political and media prominence over the pandemic; we are now seeing steps in the right direction with regard to widening of access to these devices and services and what they enable; we can finally begin to have increased hope that we will be able to meaningfully address this exclusion in the foreseeable future.

What is digital poverty?

We can leap ahead to ten years into the future and try and look back to the present day to re-examine what digital poverty was and how we addressed it. We look back to 2020-2021, two years indelibly marked by the pandemic, taking a massive toll on human life, society and the economy, opening our eyes to many pre-existing conditions of which digital poverty was one.

Excluding many from social interactions that kept us going during lockdowns and preventing many of the same people from being able to effectively engage with technologies that we hoped would minimise the impact of the pandemic and facilitate post-COVID recovery.

A different but equally serious kind of digital poverty also reduced the ability of those governing our society to properly examine, understand and deploy the data and tools that we hoped to put in place to help; this category of digital poverty - the inability to understand the strategic impact of digital, data and technology - seems likely to have significantly exacerbated the impact of the pandemic.

Alongside wider structural issues, digital poverty could be interpreted as a lack of sustained transformational engagement with the digital world. Its causes could be broadly categorised as lack of hardware in homes and hands; lack of infrastructure and connectivity; and lack of skills and education. And how did we fix digital poverty? Well, at this point it's harder to look back from the future; we're not there yet.

What has changed over the pandemic?

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, we knew there were issues with accessing the UK’s digital infrastructure; many parts of the country were not able to access high-speed connectivity, both fixed and mobile, to meet the demands of modern society. Both Ofcom and Lloyds Bank have produced reports on the scale and extent of the infrastructure and inclusion issues, highlighting the fact that at least 5% of the population remain digitally excluded.

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But we did not have enough engagement from the key players across the UK and we did not have enough consensus on how to address the issues; while we had seen local schemes to address particular instances of the various issues that contribute to digital poverty, we did not have the necessary networks or relationships in place to report, share and analyse the learnings from the successes and failures of others who had tried to fix these local instances.

Now, though, we have been forced to openly confront the issue; in many instances because it has impacted those of us who were not previously affected. Not only can we now see the problem as the painful lived experience of many, but also - hopefully - we can recognise that it was as least in part privilege that prevented us from properly acknowledging it in the past.

The big differences between now and the pre-pandemic world, then, are twofold: we are now significantly more aware of the nature of the issues and significantly more engaged in a coordinated and coherent attempt to address them.

Collaboration FTW I: RSA Roundtable

On that positive note, we now have additional stakeholders involved and very deliberately, these stakeholders are not engaged just to add new and overlapping activities or initiatives to the mix. Rather, they are here to gather existing thought and tie it together into what will hopefully form a coherent solution.

Alongside BCS, one such stakeholder is the RSA, who hosted a roundtable on ‘Digital Equity’ in May 2021. We use the RSA’s remit of social change to keep us focused on the notion that the long-term goals of these new activities are not simply - for example - the provision of millions of devices to schools, but rather the solution of complex problems involving remote education in lockdown.

Equally, we are not just talking about helping elderly neighbours to get online, but about enabling those in need to get groceries delivered with minimal physical personal contact and thereby minimise the health risks associated with some kinds of physical interaction. It is clear that digital access (or lack thereof) now plays a significant role in enabling citizens to live a fulfilling and productive life, as well as promoting positive health and wellbeing.

Collaboration FTW II: Digital Poverty Alliance

The Digital Poverty Alliance (DPA) has recently been born out of this long-needed collaboration, identifying that individual organisations are not equipped to properly address the wider issues on their own; it will, among other things, provide central guidance.

Indeed, it has already begun this work: the RSA roundtable event brought together many of the key stakeholders to identify the nature of the issues, their causes and the range of possible interventions to construct a long-term and sustainable strategy.

One thing that the DPA should provide is a sharing forum, where interventions can be identified and evaluated; we know that people are putting fixes in place for digital poverty issues, but one thing we need to do more of, is properly understand how and why those approaches succeed or fail and therefore how they can be replicated or avoided elsewhere.

What happens next?

So now that we have a new organisation, are we done? Well, no: while we do now have a significantly improved awareness of the nature and scale of the issue and an alliance we can get behind, we have not actually meaningfully addressed the widespread challenges of digital poverty yet.

What is the role of various layers of government here? Given the slow pace that we have seen to get to this point, perhaps we should just take the lead here and offer governments a role in doing the things that only they can, accepting a previous RSA position that it should sometimes act as ‘first follower’, rather than as solution leader. This is also the case for linking with specific approaches across the four nations of the UK; for example the work of Digital Communities Wales and the recent development of Digital Inclusion Alliance Wales.

But we do have a clear next step and a call to arms: alongside the wider efforts of BCS in ‘making IT good for society’, for members, fellows and partner organisations to use the DPA as a vehicle to better understand your own potential role and to contribute your efforts. Get involved!

About the authors

Dave Donaghy CITP CEng FRSA MBCS is a Trustee of the BCS and a Special Advisor to the Digital Poverty Alliance. He has been working in digital poverty since summer of 2020. Tom Crick MBE CEng FLSW FBCS is Professor of Digital Education & Policy at Swansea University and an elected member of BCS Council.