Imagine going about your normal day without access to the internet. At the time of writing, during the COVID-19 lock down that’s more inconceivable than usual with most of us relying on it to do our work, shopping and socialising. But for many, even in ‘normal’ times, access to digital services is highly problematic and contributes to their exclusion from essential services.

Those who depend on the government’s digital services need internet access to sustain their lives. Snook have met people who couldn’t log into their Universal Credit accounts and lost benefits as a result, and there are countless children who are expected to do schoolwork online but have no suitable device to do so at home. By excluding people digitally, we are excluding them from society.

The crisis has precipitated a lot of progress in digital inclusion. From Government Zero to DevicesDotNow to No One Left Behind. A lot of organisations are working together to quickly help people get online and get the support they need during this crisis. Their work builds on decades of experience of working to bridge the digital gap.

The Scottish Government commissioned Snook to synthesise existing research into recommendations for digital inclusion. This research, much of which is Snook’s own, ranges from digital rights with parents and carers, to digital exclusion of children in poverty, to the experiences of getting online for older people.

This is a summary of our findings, which can be found in full in our report, unpacking the complexity of digital inclusion. We see it as a useful resource to provide context to the work going on today.

The key factors in digital inclusion

1. Low cost and accessible connections

Access to the internet is the foundation of digital participation, and people often have limited power over this. Home broadband packages can be confusing, with hidden fees and people feeling forced into contracts. Public Wi-Fi provisions lack bandwidth, block access to certain applications such as streaming services, and are time limited. We met a woman who knew all the hotspots, — as well as their time limits — at cafes and other public spaces on her route to work. She would plan her journey so she could get access to essential services on her commute. Smartphone data, particularly on pay-as-you-go, is the most expensive way to access the internet, and people report struggling to manage their data usage.

“Some people will go without claiming benefits because they have to apply online. People don’t have the IT skills to do this, or access to computers or internet at home. Out of the 50 people we support, only 2 people have home broadband and Wi-Fi, although half of the young people have data on their smartphones.” — Carr Gomm support worker (Online Identity Assurance, 2018)

2. Motivations to get online

People who don’t currently have access need a good reason to go through the rigmarole of getting online. Personal needs such as contacting relatives, shopping or doing homework are strong motivating factors. When people feel forced to go online by certain services they feel disempowered, which isn’t the best place to start learning from. Even when given access to devices, new users without a clear drive of their own are unlikely to use them. For people living with a disability, there is a greater motivation to use digital services, as they are often more inclusive and user friendly by default. However, more is needed to make services accessible and joined up, for instance by encouraging more face-to-face interactions..

3. Access to appropriate (connected) devices

Owning a device allows a person to use it at home and in their own time, and usually increases their digital skills and confidence. Issues are raised around privacy and security if they have to share a device. In families, children are often the driver for acquiring a device to help them with school work and to feel included in their peer group. Providing devices is a quick and easy way to contribute towards digital inclusion, but it needs to go hand in hand with the provision of an internet connection.

4. Skills, confidence and safety

The fourth piece of the puzzle is about giving people the skills and confidence to get online. Most adults worry about how organisations access, process and share their personal data. Technology can be seen as a tool for abuse, but that doesn’t stop people from sharing information, opinions, and photos freely on social media. Despite high levels of concern for child safety, parents don’t trust safety measures such as parenting controls. All these fears can contribute to an aversion to getting connected.

What needs to happen to include everyone in the digital world?

Training needs to be offered and exchanged

Some people get digital skills through employment or education, while others rely on those in their immediate circle. Every person’s needs and motivations are different. This suggests that tailored, task-based training works best. Learnings from community-centred initiatives need to be shared, and skills could be exchanged between user groups.

Our digital rights need to be clear

As more services become digital, we can expect to see more people encouraged to use technology. Concerns for online safety can be a barrier for people choosing to go online. More knowledge is needed around how people can protect themselves online so that they can navigate the online world safely.

Connectivity is a basic need

People make light of the idea that digital should be the most basic of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs — over food, water, shelter, and warmth — but there is evidence that people do, to an extent, prioritise connectivity over food and comfort. Some refugees, for instance, are known to have asked for Wi-Fi or charging services ahead of food or water on arrival in a new country.

When people lose access to the internet though disruptive life events such as unemployment or illness, their connectivity is not addressed as a key need to help them get back on their feet. Regulating connectivity as the fourth utility will help reduce inequalities and allow more and more people to maximise their digital impact.

The full report can be found here.