“We are all in the same storm, but we are not all in the same boat” has become the quote du jour of the pandemic. The contrast this highlights becomes even more stark when we consider access to digital. Some of us are on the sofa deciding what Netflix series to watch while doing Zoom pub quizzes. Others are having to choose between data and food.
We can no longer ignore the scale of this issue. Under lockdown, being online is a survival strategy. The new Lloyds Consumer Digital Index shows that nine million people are struggling to get online, while 5.9 million are struggling to turn on a device and 6.5 million are unable to open an app. What will this mean for the launch of the government’s "track and trace" app?
Solving this problem becomes more urgent by the day. Access to the right information and guidance online has become a lifeline during coronavirus.
Liz Williams, chief executive of FutureDotNow, is working on DevicesDotNow, an initiative with the Good Things Foundation to help the most vulnerable get online during the crisis. Williams says that when DevicesDotNow started “we got informal insight from discussions with the UK government that of the million or more people instructed to shield, 25 per cent were not able to receive the shielding text message".
Extrapolating statistics on internet access and lack of skills, Williams says there is a high probability that “between 175,000 and half a million people have not been able to effectively self-shield. This means the most vulnerable are some of the most exposed.” By this measure, not being able to get online could be a matter of life or death.
But digital exclusion isn’t related only to health issues, but is also a challenge that is likely to affect many charity beneficiaries. Sue Pettigrew, director at the St Michael’s and All Saints Charities, points out: “Data poverty is a real issue: most of the families we work with don’t have WiFi. They have to choose between coming to an online group where they get advice and support, or staying in touch with family and friends.”
So what can charities do about this issue?
Provide practical support
Jules Hillier, chief executive of the women and children's charity Pause, told me that her charity’s practices are "supporting women by buying phones, buying phone credit and tech such as tablets. We're also supporting them with advice on using Zoom and other online platforms."
A good first step is to talk to your beneficiaries and find out what simple, low-cost steps you could take to provide them with access to digital.
Low tech is better than no tech
Playlist for Life, a music for dementia charity, told me that half of the four million people in the UK who have never used the internet are over the age of 75. About 670,000 people in the UK live with dementia and the charity is reaching some of them by making personalised playlists on MP3 players and sending them to those living with dementia in care homes.
Go offline to get information to people
Further afield, Send a Cow supports families in rural Africa, some of whom do not have internet access. Its communications executive, Zoe Jones, tells me it has created a network of "peer farmers" for communication purposes.
“Peer farmers receive up to date messages and training via WhatsApp," she says. "They can then pass on the information, and because they are already trusted members of the community we’re seeing quick changes in behaviour that can literally save lives." Farmers are provided with PPE and follow social distancing guidelines.
Today Liz Williams is calling on the government and funders to invest in helping the UK to get online.
“What we need is for digital inclusion to be taken seriously as the social issue and unlocker that it is," she says. With inequality set to deepen further in the economic aftershock of the pandemic, our sector must come together to lobby for the change needed to close the digital gap.
Zoe Amar is founder of the digital and marketing consultancy Zoe Amar Digital @zoeamar