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Forging connections through digital inclusion

What difference does it make to provide free technology and data to those who experience inequality? Community reporter Bonnie Thomson spoke to organisations involved in delivery to find out.

Illustration depicting people accessing healthcare digitally
Illustration by Alistair Quietsch for Greater Govanhill | All rights reserved

”It’s freedom to know that I’m not going to run out of data, and I can look at hobbies that I want to take up and stuff like that.” This is how one recipient describes receiving their own device and unlimited data from the Get Digital Scotland programme, run by the Simon Community, a charity that supports people experiencing homelessness. “I save a lot of money not having to top up my phone credit”, explains another. “And I have the opportunity to make long phone-calls to services and research things.”

Digital expansion is occurring at breakneck speed. As a side-effect of the Covid-19 pandemic, the digital divide has become wider than ever. Welfare, education and health services are just some of those which made the leap to online provision, creating a landscape where digital participation became societal participation. 

As expected, the Red Cross found that people facing digital exclusion – including those with a device and limited skills – experienced greater levels of loneliness and isolation during this time than those more digitally engaged. Fast forward two years and the cost-of-living crisis now means more people than ever are struggling financially. Benefits, tax reductions and support grants are largely accessed online, meaning those who don’t – or can’t – use the internet stand to miss out on potentially life-saving assistance. These are some of the reasons organisations across Scotland are prioritising digital equity.

On a local level, greater engagement with the digital world holds promise for community involvement, and the social and wellbeing benefits that come with this. The Govanhill Locality Plan highlights the need for an online directory of community services, but this still relies on widespread digital access.

David Zabiega, co-ordinator at Govanhill Community Development Trust (GCDT) confirms that the relatively high levels of poverty and social disadvantage in the neighbourhood are mostly to blame for digital inequality. “If somebody has to choose between buying food, clothing their kids or paying for data, the connectivity will be the first to go”.

Still, the importance of digital access is far from diminished. And social connection remains firmly at the centre. As David says: “When you think about groups in Govanhill like the Roma community, they often have families and friends and networks in different places and countries, so digital connection is crucial for those relationships”. 

GCDT has received several grants, particularly since the pandemic, to supply devices and data to digitally excluded residents. The trust works across the community in areas like regeneration, housing and integration. Getting to know residents through their various initiatives, it can gain a picture of where digital support is best targeted. Device provision can be difficult to monitor without stifling the project with red tape, and it can be tough to provide digital upskilling to accompany the devices as this can often require additional translation services. 

In spite of these logistical challenges, Shona Munro, co-director of Scotland-wide digital participation organisation Mhor Collective, maintains that “devices are the easy part”. Mhor Collective favours a person-centred approach to digital support – which means viewing an individual in the context of their background, values and experiences and using this to guide learning. 

Often, she says, what may seem like a lack of motivation to engage can be down to low self-confidence and the internalised assumption that “technology isn’t for me”. The best way to tackle this is to get to know what an individual cares about, and start from there: “This could be as simple as showing them how to listen to their favourite band for free, or how to see pictures of their kids”. 

Part of the person-centred approach also involves being aware of the individual dangers accessing the internet may pose to different people, Shona explains:

“If you’re working with an older person, you may need to be more mindful of fraud and scamming; with refugees and asylum seekers there may be a risk of compromising their stay in the country; with people on a recovery journey, that risk could be people pursuing them trying to sell drugs”.

Despite the risks, Irene Mackintosh, co-director of Mhor Collective, believes that internet access can have a life changing impact.  She illustrates this very simply by quoting a person with experience of homelessness, who told her that: “learning to use WhatsApp saved my life”, as it allowed her to reconnect with her sister, with whom she had previously lost all contact with. 

The case for this kind of holistic support targeting the fundamentals seems clear, though funders may not always be inclined to agree. According to Jason Railton, Digital Project Development Officer at Scottish Council for Voluntary Organisations (SCVO), funders in this field crave so-called ‘innovation’. “They can be more interested in something ‘new and shiny’ than something simple that’s already been proven to work”. 

This means projects focused on assisting people to get to grips with the very basics of digital access threaten to be overshadowed by the latest technology fad. And so the gap widens further. What’s more, since it’s such a dynamic and evolving sector, the standard for what constitutes ‘digitally included’ does not remain the same over time. The goal posts continually shift for those grappling to keep up. Jason believes narrowing the digital divide means not forgetting about the very basics and being honest about the risks and rewards to those at the far end of the digital exclusion scale, who may be unsure if accessing the internet is right for them.

Unsurprisingly, people experiencing homelessness can often be the ones at the sharp end of that scale. Simon Community Scotland focuses heavily on this issue. They provide devices, connection and long-term support. “We always try to provide unlimited data” says Nigel Gallear, digital inclusion project manager. “It’s much better than to offer someone that connection for a limited period of time before it suddenly cuts out, which could be really demoralising”. 

Participants undoubtedly agree. Owen, who benefitted from an unlimited data package, explains: “It is amazing. I don’t have to think about how and when I use my data now which makes my life easier as I need to be able to use it at all times of the day. I appreciate it”. Thankfully, data is relatively easy to acquire, due in part to the recent focus on corporate social responsibility initiatives, meaning mobile phone companies are often happy to assist with provision.

 Nigel mentions the misconception that individuals would lose or sell a device they have been given. In fact, this only happens in around 10 percent of cases: “We offer basic smart-phones which have all of the features. An £85 phone will have a street value of only around £20-30, whereas the value to the person – enjoyment, convenience and connection – hugely outweighs that”. 

Taking a rigid approach to digital inclusion doesn’t work as it tends to push people away. Nigel recognises the importance of trusted relationships  and taking a participant-directed approach: “Support workers are key. It’s best to stick with the same one for digital as well as all other support”.

A survey carried out by Simon Community found that 71 percent reported having accessed digital services for health and wellbeing; 86 percent have used the internet to learn new things; 94 percent have connected with friends and family and 98 percent have enjoyed engaging with digital. When asked what the best thing was to come from the project, one participant says: “I have set up online banking, and other social media platforms which help with my wellbeing as I can keep in touch with my family and friends more”. For another, it was: “meeting new people and connecting with people and learning something new every week.”

Mind the Health Gap is a year-long collaboration between Greater Govanhill and The Ferret exploring the solutions to health inequalities. This project was funded by the European Journalism Centre, through the Solutions Journalism Accelerator. This fund is supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Read more here.