Can COVID-19 help us bridge the digital divide?

  • techUK techUK
    Thursday28May 2020

    Guest blog: Sean Massey, MD at Civica explores the unforeseen implications of the Covid-19 pandemic and why the lockdown has given us an important opportunity to...

Digital exclusion is one of the great social challenges of our age – and it’s clear that it disproportionately affects the elderly. According to Office of National Statistics data, 24% of over-65s have not used the internet in the last three months, compared with 99% of adults aged 16-44 who use it almost daily.

The new digital reality

Yet since the UK-wide lockdown in response to the coronavirus outbreak, more citizens – whether young, old, working or retired – have had to step up their use of digital technologies to access critical services like universal credit, safely communicate with friends and family and buy essential goods. In fact, even before lockdown was officially implemented, Vodafone reported a 30% rise in internet traffic as consumers moved towards online work, communication and similar services as a result of the pandemic.

Delivering online services for all

However, not all members of society were well-equipped to adapt to this monumental shift. For example, many rural communities do not have access to high speed internet, resource-strapped households may struggle to work from home while families without spare devices are experiencing difficulties with home schooling children.

As a result, we’ve seen an enormous effort from both the public and private sector to launch initiatives aimed at combatting some of the issues which unfairly disadvantage society’s most vulnerable. Major internet providers have agreed to remove data caps on fixed-line broadband as well as provide mobile and landline packages to help vulnerable consumers stay connected. What’s more, the Department for Education has just announced a £37 million home education fund for low income families and children with special needs. And we’re also seeing many tech businesses joining the fight against coronavirus by repurposing their solutions or making them freely available, for example Civica’s Community Helper is currently in use by Liverpool City Council to deliver emergency support to vulnerable, shielding groups.

Technology skills for the future

With these support mechanisms in place, the pandemic could actually provide the catalyst to help digitally excluded citizens start learning how to use technology, showing how it can help them with day-to-day activities both now and in the future. As communities have come together to teach family members or neighbours new digital skills, we could see certain sections of the population become more digitally savvy than ever before, with an uptick in internet use across all demographics over the coming months.

Driving continued engagement

While we can’t deflect from the tragic consequences that this crisis has already and will bring to communities, we can look to a new way forward and use this time to continue engaging older and vulnerable populations in the digital world. With the government moving ever more services online and friends and family wanting to connect with one another virtually, there is no better time to eradicate the digital divide.  For example, Age UK offer a nationwide network of IT Courses, stay safe online advice and local champions.

With ongoing support, we might just see those digitally excluded until now better equipped and ready to realise the benefits of online services as we move to our ‘future normal’.

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