Closing the digital divide: TechShare Pro 2020

Covid-19 has shone a spotlight on the digital divide. We need a blueprint for change says Helen Milner, OBE, and Group Chief Executive of Good Things Foundation. 

Helen spoke to AbilityNet's Head of Marketing and Communications during TechShare Pro 2020. We review their conversation in this Q&A. 

Mark Walker, AbilityNet: Could you tell me a little bit about yourself, and Good Things Foundation? 

Helen Milner: I'm the Group Chief Executive of Good Things Foundation. I've been working in Digital inclusion and in online education since the mid-eighties.

We are a digital and social inclusion charity based in Sheffield . All of our work is about how we support people who are on the wrong side of the digital divide; who can't use the internet or have never used the internet or are using it, but in a limited way.

It's about helping people to learn how to use the internet in a supported way in order to help them, for example, to get work, to feel less isolated, keep in touch with friends and family to access health services to be able to get up-to-date information. 

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MW: So, how does it work?

HM: We work through a network of thousands of community organisations. We call these hyper-local community organisations and they're all over the UK.  And they support people locally to learn how to use internet. 

Image shows members of starting point receiving their Tech4Good AwardMW: Some of the texture in terms of the centres....

You're very much woven into the fabric of the community. My favourite one has always been that the fish and chip shop in Stockport that won the [AbilityNet] Tech4Good Award 10 years ago, but so many different examples where you're enabling people to get support.

HM: I call it a big club with the shared vision… we're all independent, but we have the same belief that there are more than 9 million people in our society who need support and help to be able to use the internet and to benefit from everything that brings.

So, you've mentioned, the fish and chip shop in Stockport but there's lots of community centres and those community centres might, for example, run a community cafe, they might do after school clubs for children, they might do recycling programmes or food poverty programmes.

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Or there are other for example small local charities that might support older people or people with disabilities. 

Anybody who wants to be part of this club is free to be part of it. Anybody who cares about digital inclusion can be part of that big club and can work with us in that coordinated way to try and tackle this and to close that digital divide.

MW: There's clearly a connection to social inclusion. How much of the digital divide do you think is technology, and how much of it is linked to other factors?

HM: I would say it's all linked, but there's a massive overlap between digital and social exclusion.

The two main factors are age and income. If somebody is older and has a low income, they're likely to be digitally excluded; either, they've never used it, they don't have access or they have very limited skills. What we mean by that is they use the internet very rarely, or they use it for a very small number of things, for example, less than five apps or websites.

You've then also obviously got other factors such as educational attainment and disability. 

Disability is another one of those factors that means that people are much more likely to be offline. There's also a big overlap between people who, for example, don't have work or have low incomes and also, and age and people with disabilities as well.

MW: Where does disability pop-up within the broad framework of what you're doing?

HM: I like to think of it as a layered approach. The big club with the shared vision, so we call it the online centres network. 

So that is clearly something that specifically targets people with disabilities in the communities that they're in and with, you know, the many disability charities that are in the online centres network. T

here are some that absolutely specialize, but everything that we do is we make it as inclusive as possible. We have an online learning platform called Learn My Way. And it's been set up with a very low levels of literacy. So, people with a reading age of nine can access it, but we also have text to speech so it's all read out as well. 

So if people can't read it or can't see it, they'll then be able to access it as well.

Then within the community centres, there are staff and are volunteers. AbilityNet has helped us to train some of those. We're helping about a quarter of a million people a year. 

It could be as simple about helping people to set up the existing accessibility tools that people have on their devices; on their smartphone or on their laptop or their tablet, they will already have accessibility and support built in. So, helping people to use that. And it's really important that we're training the staff and the volunteers to make sure that they can, they can help people in that way.

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MW: And, and your blueprint looking ahead that was published in September, I think?

HM: Yes, September.

MW: Can you tell us what's, what's the motivation behind that? 

Image shows the cover of the Good Things Foundation's digital blueprint. Text reads 'Blueprint for a 100% digitally included UK'HM: The blueprint is very much focused on policy makers, politicians, and other stakeholders. We’re calling for three things. The first is a great digital catch-up on a mass scale. We're calling to halve the digital divide; 9 million people in the UK can't use the internet without help. 

And so to have a program that tackles 4.5 million of them and actually we've costed that and we can do that, that just 2% of the investment that's going into broadband infrastructure. 


So that's really important and what we would love to have a specific great digital catch-up for people with disabilities to make sure that we're bringing in partners like AbilityNet and, and also looking at devices potentially with slightly more hardware and software for the people with disabilities.

The second one is a data poverty lab because one of the things we found within Covid is that there are a lot of people who just can't afford the internet. 

So, we can help them with devices. We can help them with, with mobile data, you know, six months, 12 months, but that's going to run out. We've supported over 10,000 people during the pandemic with new tablets, with new mobile data but when that runs out, we really need a cross sector program.

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I think we should set ourselves a target of two years to close that data poverty gap to make sure that people who can't afford it can get it for free or very, very, very low costs and clearly government the, the technology and telecom sector and charities need to work together on that.

And the third one is a digital strategy that really works for everybody. Government can't digitize government services without bringing people with them.

So, if there are still millions and millions of people over 5 million disabled people who have never used internet or who are limited users, then that's not okay. We need to make sure that the digital strategy talks to this as an issue, not just about the possibilities of the tech sector. 

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