Bridging the digital divide

Wednesday, 01 September 2021

Denise Cullen photo
Denise Cullen
Freelance Journalist

    The future is increasingly dependent on a population with sufficient tech smarts to operate in a digital environment, yet for several segments of Australian society, that survival skillset is lacking.

    Jo Cavanagh OAM MAICD was ushering the not-for-profit Family Life through a period of technological transformation when the concept of “digital exclusion” really hit home. “After running a number of workshops, one of the older members of staff leaned forward and said, ‘What on earth is a mouse and why do I need one?’” recalls Cavanagh.

    The physical distancing demands of the pandemic have wrought dramatic shifts in how people live, work and play, with accelerating digitisation being a key enabler. Yet despite some benefits, concerns are mounting that the speed and scale of the change is leaving some people behind.

    Last year, the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) warned that the shift to remote working and digital platforms during the pandemic was worsening inequality, particularly for the more than 2.5 million Australians not online. Further, it pointed out that the number of digitally excluded may continue to rise due to the loss of income suffered by those who had lost work and business as a result of the crisis.

    Defining digital disadvantage

    Several sectors of the community continue to experience deep disadvantage, and digital is at risk of becoming another overlay of that, says Melinda Cilento, CEO of CEDA.

    According to the Australian Digital Inclusion Index, which provides a snapshot of Australia’s online participation by measuring access, affordability and digital ability, digital inclusion follows clear economic and social contours (see “Mind the Gap” breakout).

    According to Deena Shiff FAICD, chair of the Australian Broadband Advisory Council, the Bureau of Communications and Arts Research 2020 working paper estimate that 95 per cent of Australians are connected to the internet “is not granular enough to tell us what we need to know” because so many more vulnerable groups now use the internet for services like health, training and education. She says more work is needed to capture, geographically map and track the data from both the Australian Digital Inclusion Index and the First Nations-specific Closing the Gap initiative.

    Shiff — who is also chair of Marley Spoon, and non-executive director with Appen, Pro Medicus and Infrastructure Australia — says organisations increasingly need to consider the impact of digitisation on customers’ ability to access their services. “Directors need to be asking: who are we leaving behind, and why? And what should we do to improve participation?”

    Cilento points out that when companies scrambled to shift operations online during the pandemic, their business survival was at stake, but it was now time to reflect in the context of inclusiveness. For instance, there were reputational risks for organisations that failed to consider whether older Australians or people with disabilities were able to access their services, web page or products. “If you didn’t consider it, or if you knew about it but made a decision not to do something about it, it’s going to become an increasing issue,” she says.

    Directors need to be asking: who are we leaving behind, and why?

    Deena Shiff FAICD

    Taking the leap

    Since 2019, Cavanagh has chaired the Sydney- based NFP Good Things Foundation Australia, which seeks to help build digital inclusion among marginalised groups. Over the past four years, the foundation has distributed $20m in grant funding to community organisations and works with local partners providing on-ground support.

    “It’s paradoxical, but the first thing digital inclusion needs is a face-to-face relationship,” says Cavanagh. “If you don’t have social supports like family or friends to help you, then you need a facilitator or an enabler, and that’s the role Good Things Foundation plays.”

    Good Things Foundation Australia built the national Be Connected network of 3500 community organisations supporting older Australians to increase their confidence, skills and online safety when using digital technology (see breakout “Go You Good Things”). For example, in Charters Towers in outback Queensland, WorkWays helped a group of women become more technologically fluent — which, in turn, prepared them to apply for jobs, engage in volunteer work, and reconnect with family members. “There are huge benefits in terms of people’s mental and physical health, with valuable consequences for improving their lives,” says Cavanagh.

    Smart policy and collaboration is emerging as a way of solving the problem of digital exclusion. The Australian Digital Inclusion Alliance (ADIA) — comprised of more than 500 business, government, academic and community organisations committed to accelerating action on digital inclusion — has recommended a whole-of-government strategy be developed in the form of a National Digital Inclusion Roadmap. In the meantime, it suggests creating a Digital Capabilities Framework to provide a common understanding and goal and moving towards all government websites being compliant with the latest accessibility standards. It also recommends assessing which of the affordability measures taken in immediate response to COVID-19 could be retained — such as permanent low-cost NBN options for those on low incomes.

    But the way ahead will also require what Cavanagh calls “bungee jumping”. “When you’re up at the highest policy and strategic-planning level, you also need to jump down and make sure your intentions are actually connecting for people, and addressing the problem,” she says.

    Cavanagh points out that check-in codes, at the very beginning of the pandemic, were a case in point. “People kept saying, ‘Just sign in,’ but not everybody had the kind of phone that could do that,” she says. “The announcement should have been: ‘For people who have a phone, this is what you will do,’ and, ‘For people who do not have a phone, we know you exist, and here’s the alternative strategy’. It would be great if that was followed up with, ‘Here’s how we can help get you online,’ [providing] a perfect opportunity for action to close the digital divide and improve policy effectiveness.”

    Mind the gap

    The Australian Digital Inclusion Index (ADII) compiles numerous variables into a score ranging from 0 to 100, with higher scores representing greater levels of digital inclusion. The index reveals well-established patterns of digital disadvantage:

    • People in the lowest 20 per cent of households by income have a digital inclusion score of 43.8 — 30 points below the highest 20 per cent of households by income.
    • The gap between tertiary-qualified individuals and those not completing secondary school is 16.6 points.
    • Digital inclusion is 7.6 points higher in capital cities (65.0) than in rural areas (57.4).
    • People aged 65-plus have an average ADII score of 49.7, which is 19.4 points below the most digitally-included group (aged 35–49).
    • More than four million Australians access the internet through only a mobile phone or device. They score 43.7 compared to a national average of 63.
    • First Nations ADII score is 55.1, 7.9 points below the national average.

    Source: Measuring Australia’s Digital Divide: Australian Digital Inclusion Index 2020

    By the numbers

    350 bank branches to close by year’s end due to reduced foot traffic

    41% proportion of people who continue to work from home at least once a week

    20% proportion of charities that believe they are using digital technologies well

    $4.01 social value created for every $1 spent in the Be Connected program

    4 in 5 Australian households purchased online in 2020

    $50.46b Australians’ total online shopping spend in 2020

    96 hours amount of time average Australian spends online each month

    90% proportion of Australians who own a smartphone

    4.3 million telehealth consultations since start of the pandemic

    60% increase in ransomware attacks on Australian entities in the past year

    Sources: Australian Financial Review, Australian Bureau of Statistics, Small Business Digital Taskforce (2018) Report to Government March 2019, Good Things Foundation Australia, Australia Post Inside Australian Online Shopping 2021 report, Nielsen Digital Landscape Report November 2020, Department of Health, Australian Cyber Security Centre

    Go you good things

    Good Things Foundation Australia and its partners are helping people thrive in the digital age:

    • During the 2019–20 bushfires along the NSW south coast, people with limited digital skills couldn’t access the latest emergency information. The Tec Exec has been teaching older Australians in Batemans Bay digital skills so they can use the internet and mobile apps.
    • Using a team of mentors, Digital IQ’s Health My Way program provided people living across the northern inland area of NSW with digital health skills training. Online health services such as My Health Record and MyGov became especially important during COVID-19 restrictions.
    • Migrants and refugees face substantial barriers to digital inclusion. Alongside the Settlement Council of Australia, the foundation recommended initiatives such as increasing data and connectivity in regional areas and including culturally appropriate digital mentoring support.

    Source: Good Things Foundation Australia

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