Digital inclusion – two steps forward and one step back

Panel discussion screenshot

Written by Robin Knowles, CEO, Digital Leaders

Alongside an audience of 300 at the national launch of the 2020 UK Consumer Digital Index, I was impressed by the digital inclusion panel of experts on the virtual stage. Discussion centred around how COVID-19 had rapidly accelerated the process of digital transformation, in 8 weeks achieving a degree of digital adoption that would usually have taken two years. However, while this is a positive development, it has the unintended consequence of further marginalising those who already suffer from digital exclusion.

The report launched this morning was the UK Consumer Digital Index. Over the last five years, the Index, created by Lloyds Bank, has used the behavioural data of 1 million people and interviewed almost 7,000 consumers, to create the UK’s largest measure of digital capability.

The main findings this year are that an estimated 7% of the UK population are still offline and 9 million struggle to get online by themselves. The report pre-dates the effects of COVID-19 on the digitisation of UK society, but thanks to a YouGov survey taken since the Coronavirus struck, Lloyds Banking Group were, to some extent, able to explore the effect of the virus on their findings.

The report welcomed the fact that the number of people who have learned basic digital skills has gone up by 6% in the past year. It will be interesting to see to what extent COVID-19 impacts digital skills take up when the report returns next year.

But given those online are seeing rapid acceleration of services and benefits during the current crisis, the conclusion drawn has to be that the digital gap is growing. Hence two steps forward, but one step back.

The report focused, as it always does, on the four barriers to participation: Motivation; Costs; Skills; and Connectivity.

Motivationally, while the report focussed on continuing issues, there was agreement at the event that in the last eight weeks that whether you were home schooling your children; running a business with staff working from home; or isolated and accessing government support under lockdown; there is a real motivation to be online. 

As one attendee put it: coronavirus = motivation has been tackled!

Cost and connectivity seemed to go together. The table discussion I attended seemed to support the view that while the costs of an internet-enabled device have come down rapidly, the main cost barrier is now the price of connectivity. There was some concern that the 3G spectrum auction had led to high costs and that 5G was in danger of creating similar barriers as auction winners tried to recoup their investment.

Movingly, we heard first hand about the harsh realities of “data poverty” from Hafsha Shaikh, Founder of Smartlyte. To tackle this there was also discussion of initiatives leading the call for government to “make the internet free during the coronavirus pandemic to ensure essential access to the online world for everyone in the UK”.

Skills remain a challenge. Peter Estlin, Chair of FutureDotNow pointed to the push to provide better skills with initiatives from online education providers. He noted that the Department for Education has pulled together some great resources, describing the situation as one where you can “fill your boots” with free training and that the challenge now was good signposting.

So a great virtual launch which took place in the Digital Leaders Lounge – or #DigiLounge, as users now call it. 

You can download the Lloyds Bank UK Consumer Digital Index 2020 report which contains a great deal more granularity here.

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