Opinion: The digital divide

In this day and age, access to the internet and digital technologies is something many of us take for granted. This was underscored by the seamlessness with which office workers up and down the country simply adapted their household digital capabilities for working from home last spring. But what about those who did not have access to the internet or a computer? Austen Shakespeare speaks to Jamie Hardesty and Dylan McKee, two leading figures within the North East’s burgeoning technology sector, to discuss the growing issue that is the digital divide

My previous article focused on the North East’s issue with food and child poverty. Poverty of this kind is by far and away the one of the most striking forms of deprivation. It cannot fail but to conjure images of Victorian industrial squalor and emotions of shame and horror.

The issue rightfully generated outrage and several U-turns from the Government.

However, while researching for that article I discovered there is another, much subtler, spectre at the feast of disadvantage in the region. The spectre of the digital divide.

The digital divide disproportionally affects the North East. The most recent Government data on this comes from a 2019 study from the Office for National Statistics (ONS) titled ‘Exploring the UK’s digital divide’.

12.1 per cent of adults in the North East are categorised as “internet non-users”, non-users are defined in this study as people who have either never used the internet or people who have not used it in three months.

Thus, the North East has the highest proportion of internet non-users in the mainland UK, only being beaten by Northern Ireland at 14.2 per cent, with Yorkshire and the Humber securing a close third place at 12 per cent.

Perhaps as a natural consequence of this the North-East subsequently has the second highest percentage of adults with zero basic online skills at 12 per cent.

These skills include using search engines, problem solving, communications, buying or selling goods, and filling out online applications forms.

Now, it could be tempting to dismiss these statistics by opining that these numbers can be explained because of the UK’s aging population. Indeed, according to the ONS 76 per cent of those with zero online skills are 65 and over.

So, on the one hand the stats tell us the obvious that older people find technology difficult to use. But given that people are working longer and living longer in an increasingly digital world, simply tossing older people to the side is neither moral or practical from a social or business stance.

So, age is a factor in this but, so too is disadvantage and poverty.

Cambridge University’s Centre for Housing & Planning Research has been looking into this issue for four years.

It states that the “research highlights that digital exclusion is not just a generational issue.

“Digital exclusion is another facet of the deep inequalities which run through the social fabric of the UK, and is more widespread than many people are aware of.”

The figures on household incomes and the digital divide are stark. “The likelihood of having access to the internet from home increases along with income, such that only 51 per cent of households earning between £6000-10,000 had home internet access compared with 99 per cent of households with an income of over £40,001.”

In 2019, large areas of the North East, according to the Indices of Deprivation explorer were shown to be in the 10 per cent most deprived areas in the country.

So, what does this mean for the North East from an economic and business standpoint?

I spoke to Jamie Hardesty, head of communications for Sunderland Software City about the North East’s problem with the digital divide.

“When we consider the North East technology sector, demand outweighs supply. Simply put, we have a growing number of businesses looking to expand and needing the talent to do so. However, the difficulty is that many SMEs can’t get the talent they need.

“We often hear businesses tell us that talent developed in the region is second to none although there simply isn’t enough of it.

“Therefore, it’s vital for the future success of the North East that we open up the tech sector as being a career opportunity for those other than undergraduates and university leavers.

“We’re excited to be piloting new activity at Sunderland Software City next year to ‘open up’ the sector to people who haven’t previously considered it.

“Moreover, we are launching a new pillar in our delivery specifically dedicated to digital adoption to help support businesses across the region be empowered to understand and implement the digital technology they need to grow.”

While tech sector programmes will be essential for solving this problem in the North East, others in the industry feel the Government needs to step up. I also spoke to Dylan McKee, CEO and founder of Nebula Labs on this issue.

“These stats paint a truly saddening picture, in which those who need services the most as they move digital by default through the pandemic, simply can’t afford to access them.

“Nobody should have to choose between education or heating and eating, and as more services move safely online, already strained local councils need more funding from the government to ensure that the most vulnerable in their area have the right access to vital services in a safe and inclusive manner.”

The Cambridge University study agrees that there needs to be more Government intervention on the issue.

“The Government’s ambition to “level up” the nation by providing next generation fibre broadband to every home by 2025 is a great ambition, but is currently expected to be missed, and the UK is lagging far behind other economies on broadband penetration,” it said.

“Full fibre broadband coverage stands at just 14 per cent across the country as a whole, according to the Social Market Foundation, who warned that the country has a “mountain to climb” to hit the target for universal coverage.”

The study also talks about a ray of legislative hope on the situation.