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The ‘human’ touch: how smarter software will bridge the digital divide

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Written by Harold de Neef, Group Director, Product & Innovation, Civica

Connected devices deliver great value today and have even bigger potential for the future. Civica’s Harold de Neef asks how we can make them accessible to everyone?

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Connected devices, whether Alexa, a smartwatch, phone or home device like a smart thermostat, are rapidly being adopted. We are welcoming them to make our lives more convenient, but the digital divide, whether linked to finance, digital literacy, or infrastructure, is increasing. So how can we make sure that connected devices are available to everyone? Especially those who are more vulnerable or isolated?

The foundation for connected devices to add value is reliable connectivity to access crucial services, even more so since the pandemic moved many services online. Yet, in the UK alone, a staggering 1.5 million homes still don’t have internet access.

The UK government is focused on helping via its £1bn Shared Rural Network plan to extend 4G mobile coverage to 95% of the UK by the end of 2025. Alongside this, satellite and radio-based methods can deliver great connectivity outside of traditional mobile networks. For example, SpaceX’s Starlink satellite system helped connect a rural community in Canada for the first time.

Connectivity can help unlock innovative technology for everyone, creating more equality via easy-to-access services. It will also help increase the quality of public services on offer. I’m hopeful we will get there, but we need to support our public sector in ensuring we provide connectivity for all.

 

Make it more human

But even the best online connection won’t help people who feel they lack the necessary skills to use connected devices. While digital inclusion has been increasing in recent years, some people remain digitally excluded, particularly among older and more vulnerable groups. A big part of the education of our communities should start by highlighting the benefits of being online and overcoming any apprehension to new technologies.

One crucial way to drive digital inclusion is through software itself. The more we can program devices to provide ‘human-like’ interactions, the easier it will be for people to use them and realise the benefits sooner. A simple voice command to a smart speaker can help anyone make a phone call, set an alarm or book an appointment – no tech skills needed as the software will take care of everything.

To help make connected devices a real focus for both public sector organisations and private partners, focusing on the right use cases will make a huge difference. In our latest Perspectives* report, Connect to the Future, we uncovered many ways and areas where connected devices are already making a real difference: from medicine reminders given by smart speakers to smart doorbells increasing security, the opportunities to improve people’s lives are endless. What will really be game changing is a collective effort from the private and public sector to focus on getting this technology into more challenged demographics and providing support where it’s most needed.

 

Trust the connection

Alongside connectivity and skills, the biggest barrier to further adoption is trust – or lack of it – around connected devices. There is a fear, whether real or not, that these devices are ‘listening in’, collecting data about us and, ultimately, invading our privacy. Failure to build trust may limit the impact of this technology, especially for the older and vulnerable people who could benefit the most.

The key here is clarity and transparency. Public services and private companies must be able to explain simply why a citizen is asked to share data, provide a choice on whether to share their information identifiably or anonymously, and show a clear benefit in exchange for sharing this data. For example, the reason Uber needs your location is to send a car directly to you; that’s why we’re willing to share our data.

The good news is we don’t need to rethink everything. In our latest report we found that many new opportunities focus on connecting more products and processes already in existence – meaning if we ‘join the dots’ properly and supplement it with smart software, we can unleash lots more value from existing connected devices.

As infrastructure is built in our more remote geographies, connectivity will hopefully stop being an issue. Therefore, the potential of connected devices depends on smart, human-like software to bridge the digital skills gap and bring improvements for everyone. Together, public services and technology companies must focus efforts on building trust and helping our communities to ensure connected devices make a positive difference, both now and in the future.


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