It’s a story of the modern age: a family spread across the globe, out of regular contact, and then a pandemic arrives, forcing everyone to turn inward and shift their gaze to surviving and enduring a lockdown.
Last year, Mabel, an older woman in Stockport, near Manchester in the UK, was seeing her local GP frequently. She was alone and isolated, battling issues of anxiety and depression. And COVID-19 only made that worse.
Over 25 years, she exchanged ‘phone calls, letters, and Christmas cards with her daughter in Canberra and more recently, with her grandson on the Gold Coast, but there was no travel or visits.
The Good Things Foundation in the UK became involved. Good Things over there, and in Australia, is a digital inclusion not-for-profit, that works with a network of on-ground partners to help those struggling to connect to the digital world because now, more than ever, not being part of the digital environment can have profound economic, social and health consequences.
In this instance, Mabel was given a different kind of tablet – one loaded with Zoom, and taught, over the ‘phone, how to use it. And for the first time in 25 years, Mabel saw her daughter’s face, and saw her grandson. They talked and laughed and reminisced. The GP who had been seeing Mabel told Good Things Foundation’s on-ground partner: “What you have done for Mabel in the past few weeks is more than I have ever done for her.’’
The feel-good story comes courtesy of Good Things Foundation (UK and Australia) Group CEO Helen Milner OBE. And Mabel’s experience is not uncommon – in the past pandemic year, Good Things in the UK helped 150,000 people and there were 20,000 people were given access to the technology and connectivity required to help them change their lives. Helen, who was the keynote speaker at Good Things Foundation’s Australia’s conference this week, points out that there is a big overlap between digital and social exclusion in the UK.
And a new report released at the Australian conference reveals that the situation is not radically different here.
The Digital Nation Australia 2021 report also released this week reveals that although there has been significant improvement in some areas, there remains concerns about some vulnerable Australians who are at risk of digital exclusion.
The COVID-19 pandemic appears to have actually made a significant difference to the percentage of Australians who are off-line, with the figure dropping from 10 percent to only one percent. But it seems that the speed of having to adapt has left many Australians feeling that they are struggling to share the benefits of these new digital engagements.
Half of the nation’s low-income households had difficulty paying for home internet the report reveals, and a third of these families have school-aged children and mobile-only connections.
The report identifies not just access issues but also problems around media literacy, confidence in digital skills declining with time out of the workforce, rural and regional problems with mobile connectivity and a lack of confidence among more than 60 percent of Australians that they can keep up with technology. In First Nations’ communities, new migrant, and refugee communities and among people with disabilities, there are issues around access to the Internet as well as usage.
“[S]ome groups are still more at risk of digital exclusion than others, meaning they are at risk of being left behind and face increasing barriers when interacting with a digitised society,’’ the report states. “Even after Australians are affordably connected to the internet (a barrier in and of itself), many people still don’t feel confident or safe online, or feel they can’t keep up with technological changes.’’
Helen explains there is another element to consider, what is referred to as “low digital engagement’’, where people might have a smart ‘phone, but not an email address. They might only access a few apps or not do their banking online. There might even be a concern about using government apps or websites.
It’s why having someone to help with the provision of the technology and the skills to drive it became increasingly important during the isolation enforced through COVID lockdowns.
“In the UK, that’s been dramatic and for long periods of time and those vulnerable people who were at home shielding (isolating), didn’t have access to food and medicines,’’ Helen says. “We had one man who actually put a sign in his window that said: ‘Please help me'.’’’
“All of those benefits potentially people take for granted before [the pandemic], there’s now an awareness that this is a much more real thing and there are millions of people who are cut off because they either lack the skills or they just can’t afford the access,’’ Helen says.
The Good Things’ model that is built on local network partners is easily replicable. In Australia, there are more than 3,500 community partners who work with Good Things across the country to deliver grants, digital training, and education programs, build capacity with a library of resources and provide digital mentoring.
But the challenges in Australia are clear, according to the 2021 report: “Three main factors influence a person’s ability to cross the digital divide: ability, affordability, and access. Often these factors interplay with each other to influence levels of inclusion. Without an affordable and reliable internet connection, there is reduced access to information, digital services, and communication channels with one’s community, family, individuals, and government.’’
“There are also reduced opportunities to develop key skills. Without confidence or digital skills, people are unable to make full or safe use of an internet connected device once they have it or understand how it may be beneficial to their life. Higher levels of inclusion in all three areas are required to lead people and communities to be 100% digitally included.’’
Whatever progress Australia makes however, is a significant contrast to the international problem of digital exclusion: only a little more than half of the world’s population are Internet users.
On a nation-by-nation approach though, there is some hope, as Helen outlines.
“We can do something about this – we know how to do it. We have a model – the network partner model – the scaled impact model, the online learning, the digital mentors,’’ she says. “There’s a model that work and it can reach the people who need the support, and they can get that support. We can scale it, with the assets and the knowledge and the experience we’ve got.’’