A turning point in the digital divide
30 September 2020 at 6:23 pm
Marking International Day for Access to Information and Right To Know Week, Andrea Pearman considers the additional difficulties digitally excluded groups have experienced this year and how we can make sure COVID-19 is a turning point for them.
If we are looking for a silver lining to the pandemic, it’s that it has brought to light many of the underlying inequalities in our society, including the extent of the digital divide and the 2.5 million Australians who are stranded on the wrong side of it.
When we moved our entire lives to the home, serious gaps in digital access and digital literacy were both exposed and heightened. By the end of April 2020, internet use grew by as much as 70 per cent across the world, the use of remote desktop by 40 per cent and the use of virtual collaboration tools by more than 600 per cent. Suddenly, we were all relying on digital technology to make a living, to connect to one another and to access essential services. People without the means, knowledge, ability or confidence to transition had their ties to society severed.
Inclusive Australia spoke with The Smith Family, Community Hubs Australia and COTA about the additional difficulties digitally excluded groups – such as school children from low-income households, migrant and rural families and older Australians – have experienced this year and how we make sure COVID-19 is a turning point for them.
The Smith Family head of policy and programs Wendy Field said: “The issue of digital access needs to be considered as almost the same right as having water in your home.”
Ian Yates, COTA CEO, said: “If we’re an online society now, we need to work out how we make that inclusive.”
During the pandemic, many low-income families have struggled to find enough devices for every member of the family to work and study from home, let alone the space, internet speeds and unlimited data for everyone. On top of that, Community Hubs Australia CEO Sonja Hood said parents have been supporting their children’s online learning without training and, in some cases, with limited understanding of the English language or the education system.
“You need tech knowledge, you need to be confident in having a conversation in English and you have to have an understanding about how that exchange works,” she said.
For the one in four Australians experiencing loneliness, a lack of digital connectivity has meant increased isolation and poor access to information and services. Older Australians, in particular, who have not grown up with digital technology have had a steep learning curve, navigating the sea of information online and teaching themselves how to work, socialise, shop and access support remotely.
“You don’t understand how important connection is until it stops,” Yates said.
“The need to facilitate, maintain and enable connection, particularly among older people, has been underlined.”
The organisations agreed that, to start to address the digital divide, we first needed to recognise the difference between digital access and literacy. Even if someone had access to the right hardware and software, and was connected to the internet, it was useless without knowing how to use it and being able to do so securely and safely.
Improving digital access meant addressing shortfalls in national digital infrastructure and services, which determined network coverage, penetration, speeds, affordability and the digitisation of services. Improving digital literacy came down to appropriate training, tech support, simple and transparent information about cyber safety and data collection, and the development of more user-friendly technology and platforms.
Yates and Hood said the public and private sectors also needed to tap into a wider range of digital channels to reach diverse groups and start co-designing websites and software with people who weren’t digitally literate.
“We have to start from the assumption that the program is not going to be accessible,” Yates said.
According to Field, it has been heartening to see the way communities, organisations and governments have already rallied to respond. With the help of supporters, The Smith Family is one of several organisations that has been working to get digital devices into homes and provide important tech support to Australians – a service which has become The Smith Family’s busiest hotline.
These are the first steps towards reaching The United Nations’ digital inclusion targets, which say broadband internet should reach 75 per cent of users worldwide by 2025 and should cost no more than 2 per cent of earnings. To achieve this, the World Economic Forum is calling on telcos, industry verticals, multinational corporations, and governmental and non-governmental organisations to mobilise to develop strategies to accelerate digital inclusion.
The impact of the pandemic on Australia’s official digital inclusion scores will be released by Telstra, RMIT University and the Centre for Social Impact at Swinburne University in the Australian Digital Inclusion Index later this year.