At the end of last year, the charity doteveryone launched its heatmap of digital exclusion across the UK to help communities take control of the situation. But where is the project now, and have councils paid attention? Rebecca Hill reports.
People will soon need to be technologically savvy to have complete control over their benefits and access other public services – Photo credit: Pexels
“It would be very easy for councils to get seduced by trying to deliver the best service for the most technologically savvy people in their community,” says Rachel Neaman, director of campus at doteveryone, a charity that wants to tackle the number of people living without digital skills or access to technology.
“But what councils need to do is ensure they have services that are as accessible as possible to everyone,” she continues. “That probably means they are very simple, very user-focused and user-tested, and that they take into account the broader spectrum of people they are there to serve.”
However, Neaman notes, the government’s push to put more services online – which she acknowledges is part and parcel of driving down costs in the public sector – could be disadvantaging the people most dependent on the state.
“There’s a kind of irony in using digital as a solution when you’re trying to serve people who are more likely to be excluded. Take Universal Credit: it’s online only, but traditionally the most disadvantaged groups lack the skills to get online,” she says.
And this problem is not going away: as more and more services are put online, the effects of being digitally excluded will become more apparent.
“The digital divide isn’t getting wider in terms of numbers,” says Neaman. “It’s getting deeper in terms of impact.”
Almost 1 in 4 UK adults don’t have basic digital skills – a point hammered home in a recent report from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee – but there is more to this statement than someone not being able to use an Excel spreadsheet.
As well as digital factors, such as not having been online or not having the infrastructure to connect, there are also social factors to digital exclusion, such as your age, income, education and health.
If councils are to address digital exclusion in their communities, and provide services that serve them best, they need to know what the problems are, says Neaman.
Launched in October last year by the charity GO On UK – which merged with doteveryone in April – the map collates eight factors that lead to someone being digitally excluded to indicate where the worst-affected areas are.
Neaman says the really useful part of the map is that you can look at each of those factors separately and filter by that one element.
“An area may look okay, but when you click on it and look at the different indicators, you may find it’s very clear there’s poor connectivity or there’s a very high population of older people,” she says. “And that’s how we help people get under the skin of the problem a bit more.”
The heatmap seems to have done the trick so far: Alison McKenzie-Folan, deputy chief executive director for customer transformation at Wigan Council, says it has been “invaluable” in helping her team understand the issues faced by the community.
“It has helped us to ensure our resources are focused where needed and that we can address our aim to make Wigan borough a driving force within the Greater Manchester super-connected city region,” she says. “We’d love in time for it to be able to demonstrate progress over time, mapping progress made and showing areas requiring further work.”
Neaman acknowledges there is still work to be done, noting that the data is only available at the local authority level. “We’re working with organisations to get more granular data,” she says, adding that the aim would be to have data available at a ward or street level.
The team is also adding more metrics to the heatmap – Neaman says the latest release earlier this year included 4G coverage – and they are working with local authorities to find out what would be more useful for them.
The doteveryone project will also link up businesses and councils, which McKenzie-Folan says will be crucial in bringing the sectors closer together.
Meanwhile, for Billy D’Arcy, the managing director of public sector at O2, says that the most important next step for projects like doteveryone’s is to move from analysis to action. “I think the big challenge for any heatmap is that there’s a lot of information out there,” he says. “Doing analysis is fine, but what are the actions that are going to have a material impact?”
And it’s clear that this question is also on the minds of the team behind the heatmap.
“Until now, we’ve been developing the heatmap, rather than actively marketing it,” says Neaman. “The next step is how can councils use it, how can we target councils that need it the most, and how can we help people ‘buddy up’?”
The charity has now launched a beta platform that has a list of resources for councils and organisations running digital skills programmes, as well as a collaborative forum for people to ask questions, get help and share best practice.
“The focus,” says Neaman, “is on helping local councils to understand their local area and what will work, to start to get them delivering programmes to help the digitally excluded.”