Tackling Digital Inequality: Why We Have to Think Bigger

Outcomes of the many schemes financed by the government to address digital inequalities are rarely uniformly positive or transformative for the people involved. Image: iPad by Sean MacEntee (Flickr).

Numerous academic studies have highlighted the significant differences in the ways that young people access, use and engage with the Internet and the implications it has in their lives. While the majority of young people have some form of access to the Internet, for some their connections are sporadic, dependent on credit on their phones, an available library, or Wi-Fi open to the public. Qualitative data in a variety of countries has shown such limited forms of access can create difficulties for these young people as an Internet connection becomes essential for socialising, accessing public services, saving money, and learning at school.

While the UK government has financed technological infrastructure and invested in schemes to address digital inequalities, the outcomes of these schemes are rarely uniformly positive or transformative for the people involved. This gap between expectation and reality demands theoretical attention; with more attention placed on the cultural, political and economic contexts of the digitally excluded, and the various attempts to “include” them.

Focusing on a two-year digital inclusion scheme for 30 teenagers and their families initiated by a local council in England, a qualitative study by Huw C. Davies, Rebecca Eynon, and Sarah Wilkin analyses why, despite the good intentions of the scheme’s stakeholders, it fell short of its ambitions. It also explains how the neoliberal systems of governance that are increasingly shaping the cultures and behaviours of Internet service providers and schools—that incentivise action that is counterproductive to addressing digital inequality and practices—cannot solve the problems they create.

We caught up with the authors to discuss the study’s findings:

Ed.: It was estimated that around 10% of 13 year olds in the study area lacked dependable access to the Internet, and had no laptop or PC at home. How does this impact educational outcomes?

Huw: It’s impossible to disaggregate technology from everything else that can affect a young person’s progress through school. However, one school in our study had transferred all its homework and assessments online while the other schools were progressing to this model. The students we worked with said doing research for homework is synonymous with using Google or Wikipedia, and it’s the norm to send homework and coursework to teachers by email, upload it to Virtual Learning Environments, or print it out at home. Therefore students who don’t have access to the Internet have to spend time and effort finding work-arounds such as using public libraries. Lack of access also excludes such students from casual learning from resources online or pursuing their own interests in their own time.

Ed.: The digital inclusion scheme was designed as a collaboration between a local council in England (who provided Internet services) and schools (who managed the scheme) in order to test the effect of providing home Internet access on educational outcomes in the area. What was your own involvement, as researchers?

Huw: Initially, we were the project’s expert consultants: we were there to offer advice, guidance and training to teachers and assess the project’s efficacy on its conclusion. However, as it progressed we took on the responsibility of providing skills training to the scheme’s students and technical support to their families. When it came to assessing the scheme, by interviewing young people and their families at their homes, we were therefore able to draw on our working knowledge of each family’s circumstances.

Ed.: What was the outcome of the digital inclusion project—i.e. was it “successful”?

Huw: As we discuss in the article, defining success in these kinds of schemes is difficult. Subconsciously many people involved in these kinds of schemes expect technology to be transformative for the young people involved yet in reality the changes you see are more nuanced and subtle. Some of the scheme’s young people found apprenticeships or college courses, taught themselves new skills, used social networks for the first time and spoke to friends and relatives abroad by video for free. These success stories definitely made the scheme worthwhile. However, despite the significant good will of the schools, local council, and the families to make the scheme a success there were also frustrations and problems. In the article we talk about these problems and argue that the challenges the scheme encountered are not just practical issues to be resolved, but are systemic issues that need to be explicitly recognised in future schemes of this kind.

Ed.: And in the article you use neoliberalism as a frame to discuss these issues?

Huw: Yes. But we recognise in the article that this is a concept that needs to be used with care. It’s often used pejoratively and/or imprecisely. We have taken it to mean a set of guiding principles that are intended to produce a better quality of services through competition, targets, results, incentives and penalties. The logic of these principles, we argue, influences they way organisations treat individual users of their services.

For example, for Internet Service Providers (ISPs) the logic of neoliberalism is to subcontract out the constituent parts of an overall service provision to create mini internal markets that (in theory) promote efficiency through competition. Yet this logic only really works if everyone comes to the market with similar resources and abilities to make choices. If their customers are well informed and wealthy enough to remind companies that they can take their business elsewhere these companies will have a strong incentive to improve their services and reduce their costs. If customers are disempowered by lack of choice the logic of neoliberalism tends to marginalise or ignore their needs. These were low-income families with little or no experience of exercising consumer choice and rights. For them therefore these mini markets didn’t work.

In the schools we worked with the logic of neoliberalism meant staff and students felt under pressure to meet certain targets—they all had to prioritise things that were measured and measurable. Failure to meet these targets would then mean they would have to account for what went wrong, face losing out on a reward or they would expect disciplinary action. It therefore becomes much more difficult for schools to devote time and energy to schemes such as this.

Ed.: Were there any obvious lessons that might lead to a better outcome if the scheme were to be repeated: or are the (social, economic, political) problems just too intractable, and therefore too difficult and expensive to sort out?

Huw: Many of the families told us that access to the Internet was becoming evermore vital. This was not just for homework but also for access to public and health services (that are being increasingly delivered online) and getting to the best deals online for consumer services. They often told us therefore that they would do whatever it took to keep their connection after the two-year scheme ended. This often meant paying for broadband out of their social security benefits or income that was too low to be taxable: income that could otherwise have been spent on, for example, food and clothing. Given its necessity, we should have a national conversation about providing this service to low income families for free.

Ed.: Some of the families included in the study could be considered “hard to reach”. What were your experiences of working with them?

Huw: There are many practical and ethical issues to address before these sorts of schemes can begin. These families often face multiple intersecting problems that involve many agencies (who don’t necessarily communicate with each other) intervening in their lives. For example, some of the scheme’s families were dealing with mental illness, disability, poor housing, and debt all at the same time. It is important that such schemes are set up with an awareness of this complexity. We are very grateful to the families that took part in the scheme and the insights they gave us for how such schemes should run in the future.

Ed.: Finally, how do your findings inform all the studies showing that “digital inclusion schemes are rarely uniformly positive or transformative for the people involved.” Are these studies gradually leading to improved knowledge (and better policy intervention), or simply showing the extent of the problem without necessarily offering “solutions”?

Huw: We have tried to put this scheme into a broader context to show such policy interventions have to be much more ambitious, intelligent, and holistic. We never assumed digital inequality is an isolated problem that can be fixed with a free broadband connection, but when people are unable to afford the Internet it is an indication of other forms of disadvantage that, in a sympathetic and coordinated way, have to be addressed simultaneously. Hopefully, we have contributed to the growing awareness that such attempts to ameliorate the symptoms may offer some relief but should never be considered a cure in itself.

Read the full article: Huw C. Davies, Rebecca Eynon, Sarah Wilkin (2017) Neoliberal gremlins? How a scheme to help disadvantaged young people thrive online fell short of its ambitions. Information, Communication & Society. DOI: 10.1080/1369118X.2017.1293131

The article is an output of the project “Tackling Digital Inequality Amongst Young People: The Home Internet Access Initiative,” funded by Google.

Huw Davies was talking to blog editor David Sutcliffe.

Estimating the Local Geographies of Digital Inequality in Britain: London and the South East Show Highest Internet Use—But Why?

Small area estimation techniques allow us to estimate Internet use in small geographies in Britain: the first attempt to estimate Internet use at any small-scale level. Read the full article.

Despite the huge importance of the Internet in everyday life, we know surprisingly little about the geography of Internet use and participation at sub-national scales. A new article on Local Geographies of Digital Inequality by Grant Blank, Mark Graham, and Claudio Calvino published in Social Science Computer Review proposes a novel method to calculate the local geographies of Internet usage, employing Britain as an initial case study.

In the first attempt to estimate Internet use at any small-scale level, they combine data from a sample survey, the 2013 Oxford Internet Survey (OxIS), with the 2011 UK census, employing small area estimation to estimate Internet use in small geographies in Britain. (Read the paper for more on this method, and discussion of why there has been little work on the geography of digital inequality.)

There are two major reasons to suspect that geographic differences in Internet use may be important: apparent regional differences and the urban-rural divide. The authors do indeed find a regional difference: the area with least Internet use is in the North East, followed by central Wales; the highest is in London and the South East. But interestingly, geographic differences become non-significant after controlling for demographic variables (age, education, income etc.). That is, demographics matter more than simply where you live, in terms of the likelihood that you’re an Internet user.

Britain has one of the largest Internet economies in the developed world, and the Internet contributes an estimated 8.3 percent to Britain’s GDP. By reducing a range of geographic frictions and allowing access to new customers, markets and ideas it strongly supports domestic job and income growth. There are also personal benefits to Internet use. However, these advantages are denied to people who are not online, leading to a stream of research on the so-called digital divide.

We caught up with Grant Blank to discuss the policy implications of this marked disparity in (estimated) Internet use across Britain.

Ed.: The small-area estimation method you use combines the extreme breadth but shallowness of the national census, with the relative lack of breadth (2000 respondents) but extreme richness (550 variables) of the OxIS survey. Doing this allows you to estimate things like Internet use in fine-grained detail across all of Britain. Is this technique in standard use in government, to understand things like local demand for health services etc.? It seems pretty clever.

Grant: It is used by the government, but not extensively. It is complex and time-consuming to use well, and it requires considerable statistical skills. These have hampered its spread. It probably could be used more than it is—your example of local demand for health services is a good idea.

Ed.: You say this method works for Britain because OxIS collects information based on geographic area (rather than e.g. randomly by phone number)—so we can estimate things geographically for Britain that can’t be done for other countries in the World Internet Project (including the US, Canada, Sweden, Australia). What else will you be doing with the data, based on this happy fact?

Grant: We have used a straightforward measure of Internet use versus non-use as our dependent variable. Similar techniques could predict and map a variety of other variables. For example, we could take a more nuanced view of how people use the Internet. The patterns of mobile use versus fixed-line use may differ geographically and could be mapped. We could separate work-only users, teenagers using social media, or other subsets. Major Internet activities could be mapped, including such things as entertainment use, information gathering, commerce, and content production. In addition, the amount of use and the variety of uses could be mapped. All these are major issues and their geographic distribution has never been tracked.

Ed.: And what might you be able to do by integrating into this model another layer of geocoded (but perhaps not demographically rich or transparent) data, e.g. geolocated social media/Wikipedia activity (etc.)?

Grant: The strength of the data we have is that it is representative of the UK population. The other examples you mention, like Wikipedia activity or geolocated social media, are all done by smaller, self-selected groups of people, who are not at all representative. One possibility would be to show how and in what ways they are unrepresentative.

Ed.: If you say that Internet use actually correlates to the “usual” demographics, i.e. education, age, income—is there anything policy makers can realistically do with this information? i.e. other than hope that people go to school, never age, and get good jobs? What can policy-makers do with these findings?

Grant: The demographic characteristics are things that don’t change quickly. These results point to the limits of the government’s ability to move people online. They say that 100% of the UK population will never be online. This raises the question, what are realistic expectations for online activity? I don’t know the answer to that but it is an important question that is not easily addressed.

Ed.: You say that “the first law of the Internet is that everything is related to age”. When are we likely to have enough longitudinal data to understand whether this is simply because older people never had the chance to embed the Internet in their lives when they were younger, or whether it is indeed the case that older people inherently drop out. Will this age-effect eventually diminish or disappear?

Grant: You ask an important but unresolved question. In the language of social sciences—is the decline in Internet use with age an age-effect or a cohort-effect. An age-effect means that the Internet becomes less valuable as people age and so the decline in use with age is just a reflection of the declining value of the Internet. If this explanation is true then the age-effect will persist into the indefinite future. A cohort-effect implies that the reason older people tend to use the Internet less is that fewer of them learned to use the Internet in school or work. They will eventually be replaced by active Internet-using people and Internet use will no longer be associated with age. The decline with age will eventually disappear. We can address this question using data from the Oxford Internet Survey, but it is not a small area estimation problem.

Read the full article: Blank, G., Graham, M., and Calvino, C. 2017. Local Geographies of Digital Inequality. Social Science Computer Review. DOI: 10.1177/0894439317693332.

This work was supported by the Economic and Social Research Council [grant ES/K00283X/1]. The data have been deposited in the UK Data Archive under the name “Geography of Digital Inequality”.

Grant Blank was speaking to blog editor David Sutcliffe.

Young people in transition are particularly at risk of being both socially and digitally excluded

On 23 March 2012, the Oxford Internet Institute saw stakeholders from a variety of backgrounds, attending our workshop ‘On the Periphery? Low and Discontinued Internet use by Young People in Britain: Drivers, Impacts and Policies’. One of the key themes that emerged over the course of the day was that digital inclusion cannot be addressed without tackling social exclusion, for many of those who are currently not online are also socially excluded.

The Government’s recent digital inclusion campaigns seem at first sight to recognise this need. For example, the UK ICT Strategy paper pledges that “The Government will work to make citizen-focused transactional services ‘digital by default’ where appropriate using Directgov as the single domain for citizens to access public services and government information. For those for whom digital channels are less accessible (for example, some older or disadvantaged people) the Government will enable a network of ‘assisted digital’ service providers, such as Post Offices, UK online centres and other local service providers” (§45, UK ICT Strategy 2011).

‘By default’ strategies are at the core of a concept called ‘libertarian paternalism’, which initially was advanced and popularised by two American academics, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, and since has been adopted by a number of governments around the world. In the UK, it has inspired the creation of the Cabinet Office’s Behavioural Insight Team, commonly known in Whitehall as the ‘Nudge Unit’.

The idea behind the libertarian paternalism concept is that the government gently encourages citizens to act in socially beneficial ways, without infringing their freedom or liberty, and through these nudges it improves economic welfare and well being for the whole of society. Governments nudge by reorganising the context in which citizens make certain decisions, a strategy also referred to as ‘choice architecture’. To quote a common example, it may not be at the forefront of learner drivers’ mind to sign up for the organ donor register, but by asking learner drivers whether they would like to join the register at the end of their application for a provisional driving licence, many learner drivers may choose to opt in. In other words, while the learner drivers are by default not enrolled as organ donors, they are gently ‘nudged’ by authorities to join the organ donors register and to help tackle the nationwide shortage of organ donations.

To apply libertarian paternalism to issues where citizens have the freedom to make a choice is sensible. Libertarian paternalism after all already has proven to be beneficial in a number of aspects of civic life. But by applying the concept to issues where citizens do not have a choice because of restricted resources, by default strategies risk becoming a tool for social exclusion. This poses a democratic problem.

This, our research suggests, is a current threat for young people who are high users of government services but infrequent users of the Internet.

The benefits of moving government services online are clear. Older citizens who do not go online often do not do so due to a range of factors, such as lack of skills, lack of interest or absence of an Internet connection. While these reasons are complex, there is often, at least to some extent, some element of a digital choice. Thus, for many people within this group, digital by default strategies that encourage citizens to use the government’s online services may work well. For example, through the provision of support at UK online centres and initiatives such as Go On Give an Hour in the context of the UK Race Online 2012 campaign.

However, for younger citizens, who have used the Internet at school and have grown up with the Internet as a part of normal life, not using the Internet or using the Internet in limited ways is more likely to be linked to issues such as the costs of going online. The majority of this group do not need to be nudged into using the Internet.

Preliminary findings of our ‘Lapsed Use of the Internet Amongst Young People in the UK’ project confirm this hypothesis. They suggest that particularly young people in transition often find it difficult to get access to the Internet. These are young people who just left school and don’t have Internet access at home, young people who are in transitory homes or homeless, young people who have just arrived in the UK as a refugee and young people who are working part-time only, or are unemployed and therefore cannot afford to access the Internet.

Sometimes the computers are full, so I go to the British library and can check my email and can see whether I have received something, because at the moment I am looking for jobs. If I am waiting for something important or if I have applied for a job … I have to keep checking my Internet and if I don’t have access to the Internet I really worry. [Alexandra, 20]

They actually cut the funding. And this is why places like the youth club here and Connexions that used to be open are no longer open, and the one-stop shop in L, all got their fundings cut, and they closed down. And, they, I’m surprised this place [youth club] is open, you know. But what can you do?  Nothing, you would have nothing. You would seriously have nothing… [Giorgio, 23]

Young people in transition are particularly at risk of being both socially and digitally excluded. Because of the restriction of their resources, accessing the Internet for them is not typically a matter of choice. This is why an ICT strategy based on choice architecture is not going to work for the majority of young people who are currently ex-users or non-users of the Internet. Instead, there is a danger that digital by default strategies doubly disadvantage those young people without Internet access, by aggravating and slowing down their enrolment process for government services and job programmes.

Therefore, strategies need to be developed that target young ex- and non-users of the Internet specifically, to ensure that these young people who are already part of an ‘Internet by default generation’ do not slip through the net, both technologically and socially.