Guest blog: How can the VCSE community tackle digital poverty? More lessons from the North East

Last year, VONNE worked with Not Equal research centre and Newcastle University's Open Lab on a series of workshops for the region's VCSE community to explore digital inclusion and gain insight into what policy makers, funders, and technologists can do to support it. Facilitated workshops were run by Adam Parnaby, PhD researcher at Open Lab, and in this guest blog post, he gives us his take on the issue.

In the UK, 1.9 million households have no access to the internet and millions more are reliant on pay-as-you-go services to make phone calls or access healthcare, education and benefits online. Of those who are online, an estimated nine million people (16 per cent) are unable to use the internet or their devices without assistance.

Digital poverty is a long-standing issue the VCSE sector has been working on for many years. On top of that, Covid-19 has forced many aspects of life online, exacerbating digital poverty issues.

Not-Equal, a UK Research and Innovation-funded NetworkPlus, looking at the implications and opportunities digital technology can bring to social justice, Open Lab, Newcastle University and VONNE worked with eight North East VCSE organisations. Following this work, we released a report with recommendations for what policy makers, funders and technologists can do to support the VCSE sector in its digital inclusion work.

Digital inclusion is incredibly complex

A key theme of our findings is the complexity of doing digital inclusion work ‘on the ground’. Different individuals and communities can have very different digital needs, and these needs can change dramatically over time. For example, a person who is long-term unemployed probably wants something very different from the internet to an older person isolated by the pandemic.

The main issue preventing a person from gaining the benefits they want to see from our digital world could be one of access to a device, or connectivity, or a source of technical or emotional support. Some of these issues can be resolved by ‘one-off’ interventions, and others may require long-term or even indefinite support.

Devices need to be maintained, updated, and replaced. Connectivity needs to be paid for on an ongoing basis. The digital skills in demand from employers change continually as technology evolves, and the digital skills we need in our daily lives can change just as suddenly (as we've seen with the rise of video conferencing platforms such as Zoom during the pandemic).

Alongside this, for some participants, digital inclusion was more like an ongoing care service than a process of education that one could 'graduate from', something the existing funding landscape in digital inclusion was not set up well for.

With this in mind, it’s easy to understand why it can be so challenging for an individual organisation to tackle digital poverty in their locality on their own.

The VCSE sector has been doing brilliant, innovative work in this space for a long time, but few organisations have the resources or institutional knowledge to address all the facets of this complex problem. Fewer still have access to the stable, long-term funding that is needed to provide ongoing support to those who need it.

What needs to be done?

In our report we laid out four recommendations for practitioners, funders, and policymakers:

  1. How to handle complexity – Policymakers and funders must recognise the complexity of doing digital inclusion work ‘on the ground’, and that addressing digital poverty in a sustainable and effective manner requires a long-term view of funding and commissioning. Moreover, as digital poverty is as much a social problem as a technical one, it can't be expected that it will be ‘solved’ by time-bound projects or a single period of enhanced investment. A person might enter digital poverty at any point in their life for any number of reasons, and may require continual digital inclusion support for the rest of their life.
  2. Creating a digital inclusion ecosystem – We find that digital poverty is simultaneously too broad for most organisations to effectively tackle all its constituent components within their local community, and too complex for siloed working practices. Funders and commissioners should, wherever possible, foster a collaborative ecosystem of digital inclusion practitioners. Work should be undertaken to cultivate an environment in which many organisations can collaborate closely to address different aspects of digital poverty in a particular locality.
  3. Working with technologists – VCSE sector practitioners and technologists should be supported to engage with one another to develop guidance around the development of technology that's as accessible as possible to those experiencing digital poverty. In particular, we suggest two key areas in which greater VCSE sector-technologist collaboration could be productive. The first of these is in updating and refining existing guidelines to produce accessible content, based on the deep community knowledge that VCSE organisations are already used to working with. The second is the production of guidance for building software designed to support the presence of trusted third parties within interactions between a user with low digital skills and a digital system, such as community centre or library staff or volunteers.
  4. Training for the VCSE sector – Finally, we believe these training provisions would be of benefit to the North East’s VCSE sector, including: training to support collaboration with other organisations on complex inclusion projects, training in producing accessible online materials, and guidance on engaging individuals belonging to particular marginalised communities, drawn from organisations with relevant expertise and experience.

Read the full report, Tackling digital poverty in the North East: Lessons learned from the region's VCSE community.