How best to tackle digital poverty in social housing? | Online

James Prowse

Around 20 years ago, digital poverty began to register as a priority issue. In 2007, the European Commission reported that e-inclusion is a societal rather than a technological problem – with direct implications for health, education, employment and infrastructure. Today, digital poverty is attracting the attention of leaders across the social housing sector, as well as government and industry.

The world is moving at a remarkable pace online. The growing ubiquity of digital technologies and services is no less relevant to our way of life today than the introduction of central heating and sanitation over the past few decades. Connectivity is as important as any utility.

Now we have the cost of living crisis amplifying the impact of digital poverty. The crisis will affect us all in some way, but will be most damaging to those living in digital poverty.

Living without a reliable connection to the internet denies access to everyday life in the UK as essential services disappear online. It is now that any person or family without reliable internet access is at a significant disadvantage in all aspects of life, but especially when it comes to mitigating the effects of rising costs.

For this reason, we created a project together with the non-profit housing cooperative HACT to collect all available data on digital poverty and social housing and to carry out our own research. So what were the main conclusions?

First we need to define terms. According to the Digital Poverty Alliance (DPA), digital poverty is “the inability to fully interact with the online world, when, where, and how a person needs to do so”. It adds: “It is and is being exacerbated by other socioeconomic, educational, racial, language, gender and health inequalities. It is both the product and the cause of other forms of socio-economic disadvantage.” Our research has shown that this definition is not shared by all housing associations.

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The DPA describes the top five determinants of digital poverty as lack of devices, access/connectivity, skills, motivation, and support and participation. A key observation here is that this list goes beyond devices and access/connectivity. These factors are of course fundamental; But having these basics is not in itself a way out of digital poverty. This is where the other factors can come into play: the ability, the will and the necessary support.

It is also clear that digital poverty is still a major problem. According to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), more than five million people in the UK do not use the internet and more than 10 million lack essential basic digital skills. The impact of digital poverty is also believed to disproportionately affect certain population groups, with renters in social housing being more likely to be in a state of digital poverty than renters in other ownership situations.

Negative effects

In addition to measuring the size of the problem, our research aimed to understand the key impacts of digital poverty. It uncovered the main negative impacts: the ability to access education (50%); Entitlement to benefits (50%); access to employment opportunities (45%); the opportunity to receive support for health and well-being (44%); affordable energy bills (42%) and affordable groceries (34%); and the ability to connect with the local community, family and friends (40%).

We also looked at the impact of digital poverty on the housing associations themselves. Our results show that the most important impact of digital poverty on providers is their ability to deliver services effectively and efficiently (63%).

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Other impacts noted were the ability to understand occupant needs (57%), collect information about and from occupants (54%), and collect information about and from homes (52%). Only 4% said digital poverty had no impact.

Added to this are the societal effects. We have found that digital poverty is making the cost of living crisis worse by preventing people from accessing the savings available online for a variety of goods and services. Additionally, digital poverty is preventing the country from achieving greater carbon savings due to the lack of deployment of smart meters.

It is clear that digital poverty has a multitude of negative consequences, many of which affect us all. Our research also shows that housing associations understand that they have an important role to play in solving the problem. Overall, 83% of survey respondents said their organization considers digital poverty when making service design and delivery decisions.

This high proportion reflects the commitment of social housing companies to support the interests of tenants, while underlining the importance of digitizing their own business processes and services. Only 3% reported not knowing whether or not their organization actively considers digital poverty when making service decisions.

The research also made it clear that the concerns of the associations about digital poverty only grew with the Covid 19 pandemic, in which more and more services were digitized. There is concern that the impact of digital poverty has increased over the period, supported by evidence from our survey – 77% of our sample said they are more concerned about digital poverty today than they were before the pandemic. More than half of them are “much more worried”.

Recommended steps

What matters is how these concerns are translated into action. Our research has identified some excellent practices, but the overall picture is patchy. As a result, we have created a set of recommended steps that all associations can take to tackle digital poverty. These range from research to understand the nature of the problem in a local area to tactics associations can use to increase engagement.

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We see an opportunity to integrate digital training into community services and design inclusion as part of people’s interests or desired skills. It’s also a real benefit to provide access to basic devices such as B. smart speakers that can lower the barriers to digital engagement.

There is also clearly an opportunity for technology providers and network operators to play a bigger role. For example, we encourage companies to offer social plans with the same high quality and speed as standard packages at a lower cost for those using a wide range of benefits. And to ensure that the application process is accessible in many ways and that the tariff is advertised instead of hidden.

We also recommend strong collaboration with local authorities and social housing organizations to enable further cost reductions for those identified as most in need and to further facilitate access by providing free connections to communities. Finally, companies should support educational interventions by providing funding, providing workshops, or creating training resources.

There is no silver bullet – tackling digital poverty is just as nuanced and challenging as tackling any other form of entrenched poverty. However, our research clearly shows that the effort is worthwhile for residents, housing associations and society as a whole.

James Prowse is Regional Manager for Social Housing at Hyperoptic

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