DL Week 2020: We must make Covid-19 the catalyst for ending digital poverty

3people sat round a table with laptops

Written by Chris Ashworth, Head of Public Benefit, Nominet

Many of us may now be adjusting to a more ‘digital’ existence as the pandemic rages on, normalising internet use for much more than we used to. By ‘we’, of course, I mean those of us on the right side of the digital divide – but so many aren’t. There are hundreds of thousands of people across the UK who continue to struggle with a digital exclusion that may have been an issue pre-pandemic, but is now a disaster. They are being shut out of our digital society. 

I’ve been talking a lot about this since the coronavirus hit the UK back in March and I’m thrilled that we at Nominet – along with our fantastic partners – have managed to do something about it, however slight. For example, we partnered in an initiative, DevicesDotNow, to mobilise the industry to source devices and connectivity, for distribution to those in need. Learnings from this project informed REBOOT by Nominet, an online platform providing advice, resources and support to the community groups already hard at work collecting and re-purposing unused devices for local people.

These are successes, absolutely, but just drops in the ocean when we consider the scale of the issue: 1.9 million households are without access to the internet. More needs to be done, and I jumped at the opportunity to chair a panel at the recent Digital Leaders Week 2020 to reach a wider audience and discuss how we might collectively work to unlock access to digital inclusion and use this pandemic as a catalyst for lasting change. 

Joining me on the panel were Ross McCulloch from Third Sector Lab, Helen Milner OBE of Good Things Foundation and Liz Williams MBE of FutureDotNow – inspiring people I am lucky to work alongside. While I won’t regurgitate our discussions in this blog (check out the Replays page to watch it), I’d like to share the aspects that have stayed with me and the imperatives that must drive us onwards.

It goes without saying that the pandemic has increased the inequality between those on either side of the digital divide and we must continue to interrogate this issue, ensuring we make the pandemic an opportunity to change, and not a moment at which life became worse for the digitally excluded.

One area of this issue that seems woefully misunderstood is data poverty, and it has an impact on so many more than we imagine, including students or young mums. There are 25 million pay-as-you-go mobile contracts in the UK, many of whom are susceptible to data poverty – as unemployment rises, this number will only grow. When your mobile phone is your only means of accessing the internet – and for many it is – hitting that data limit means being shut out of digital society until they can afford to top up. 

We managed to support these people during lockdown. Alongside Snook, and with the support of UK Government and mobile phone operators, we secured zero-rate access to certain key sites, including the entire NHS digital estate, to ensure those in data poverty could access critical advice. It was a quick fix – but we need a sustainable solution. 

Encouragingly, digital exclusion and data poverty are not new terms and many people are already working hard to tackle these issues – Helen of Good Things Foundation has been involved in this issue for two decades now. But to deliver lasting change, we need a more comprehensive understanding of the issues, recognising that this is a ‘people’ problem and not a technology problem, and deliver collective action to tackle the wider social challenges which contribute to it. It means a focus on barriers to inclusion, digital skills and data poverty. We need buy-in from Government, as well as from all levels of industry, right down to grassroots organisations and charities. Can we achieve that? Is there enough will to make it happen? 

I’m an optimist; I believe it can be done and I work every day with people who give their all to driving this agenda. Covid-19 has provided, I hope, a tipping point and the opportunity to tackle this for good. I’m grateful to Digital Leaders for the arena to spread the message and discuss real, workable solutions with those who can help us end digital exclusion. The next step is to deliver on our discussions and mobilise – and we all have a part to play. Ask yourself, what can I do? How can I, my company or my community, play a part? And how can I continue to the wider collective and ensure digital poverty becomes a thing of the past?


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