How can we tackle the digital divide?

In this  blog, we hear from Paul Wilkes, Digital Inclusion Coordinator at Leeds Libraries, on how they're tackling the digital divide. You'll hear how they're working together with their community to deliver different programmes designed with the barriers to digital inclusion in mind.

Illustration of two computer screens, with texthelp characters beside them

What really is digital inclusion?

There are a lot of myths surrounding digital inclusion. Many people think “It is the year 2020, everyone has a smartphone these days right?” Wrong. “But everyone can use the internet surely?” Again, wrong. “Well yeah there will be some older people that can’t use digital but everyone else is online?”…You see where I’m going with this.

In fact roughly 10% of the UK adult population are not online at all according to the Office of National Statistics – a staggering 5 million people. Even more don’t have the necessary basic digital skills that they need to thrive in today’s technology-driven world – around 11.3million people. Many of us are living in a digital bubble, detached from the world of digital exclusion, so it’s easy for a digitally-savvy person, like anyone reading this blog, to wonder where these people are – spoiler alert: they’re everywhere.

They’re standing at the bus stop in the wind and rain because they couldn’t check the app and see it was running fifteen minutes late. They’re bumping into their partner at the shop, both buying milk because they couldn’t text each other. They don’t have smartphones, they don’t book tickets online, they don’t have a Kindle or an Alexa or even an email address. They’re at home waiting on hold, watching time tick and worrying about the spiralling cost of their 30p/minute call. They’re getting into debt because they can’t find or apply for a job, unable to pay their rent because they can’t do the online form for Universal Credit.

Digital inclusion is a sliding scale – not everybody is as above, but there are many who maybe have a smartphone but don’t really know how to use it. They have a tablet which they only use for playing games but don’t know how to email, or they use email but they don’t know how to use social media. There’s a fear that everyone has overtaken them, a feeling of being left behind, unable to keep up with the rapid pace of change in the landscape of the way people live their lives. A resentment at the way it’s gone, everyone seems to be a computer expert.

The truth is that everyone is not an expert, most people are learning as they go along, cobbling bits of knowledge together, but to get to that point you need the basics. Once you have learned how to search on Google or Youtube, you can pretty much learn anything. But how do you get to that point if you have never used a touchscreen, can’t afford a tablet or laptop or smartphone, Wi-Fi and everything else that comes with it, and you don’t know where you could even go to get online and have no opportunities to practice?

The reality is that in today’s world many services are moving to being solely online and many people who aren’t ready for that are getting left behind. The digital divide is growing, it’s getting harder to not be online and those people are missing out on accessing health information, making their lives easier, improving their wellbeing. The internet is not a fix-all solution, but if you’re able to video-chat to relatives, share family photos, joke with friends or access the many free online services that can improve your health and wellbeing then that has to be a good thing.

We're striving for 100% digital in Leeds, and here's how...

It’s the potential of digital inclusion to be so positively life changing, and it’s prevalence in almost every aspect of modern day life, that makes it so important. This is why in Leeds, the theme of digital inclusion runs throughout all of the city’s core strategies and aims. It is a priority in the Leeds City Council Best Council Plan and the Leeds Inclusive Growth Strategy.

Leeds Libraries are leading an innovative movement called 100% Digital Leeds, a citywide digital inclusion programme with input from other relevant sectors like Health, Housing and Digital & Information Services. The aim is to ensure everyone in the city has everything they need to improve their lives through digital. It’s not just about people who have never been online, it’s about everyone who wants to learn and improve their situation through using digital. It’s about equal opportunities and making sure that nobody is left behind – that they know where they can go and what they can do if they need or want to get online.

100% Digital Leeds takes a furthest first approach – the most likely people to be digitally excluded are those who have other challenges and factors making it more difficult for them to engage, such as disability, learning difficulties, poverty, homelessness, addiction, language barriers, long-term health conditions, social isolation, memory problems, the list goes on, but generally these are the most vulnerable people across the city and its wards.

Leeds is a diverse and compassionate city, so there is a comprehensive 3 rd sector full of charities and voluntary organisations doing excellent work to give support and a voice to the under-represented people they work with. 100% Digital Leeds uses the approach of working with these organisations to embed digital into what they already do, supporting the organisations to grow and increasing their capacity to be able to better support the citizens.

Leeds’ pioneering approach to digital inclusion has earned plaudits from far and wide and has won several awards including 2019 Digital Council of the Year at the Smart Cities Awards. So what are the challenges and what is happening in Leeds to address them?

The barriers

It is generally recognised that there are three main barriers to digital inclusion, these are:

Skills –Many people don’t have the skills to get online or use digital tech, they might not know how to turn on a computer, use a touchscreen or type on a keyboard. There is an increasing amount of jargon that computer literate people can take for granted, but many people may not know what “shift” or “control” keys are etc.

Access– Even if they have the skills some people won’t have access to technology. Some people feel priced out of having access as it costs money to have a smartphone or a tablet, a Wi-Fi connection, data and any other extras they may need.

Motivation/Confidence– This is perhaps the most common barrier amongst non-users, many people if they haven’t got online by now feel that they’ve been perfectly fine and they don’t need to use technology. This may be the case for some, but many could enhance their lives if they had the confidence or the motivation to start learning and pick up some useful features.

The solutions

Leeds Libraries have based much their work around addressing these barriers, some examples of which are:

Skills– 100% Digital Leeds have built a network and are engaging many 3rd sector organizations to share solutions and ways of embedding digital into what they already do. They serve as a point of contact where organisations can come to for help or advice around funding opportunities or any teething problems with starting to use technology. They have also worked closely with Good Things Foundation to help organisations into the Online Centres Network and are informing, enthusing and recruiting new community groups across Leeds to accelerate the progress in fighting the digital divide. Rather than 100% Digital Leeds putting on digital skills sessions, they work with the organisations, with the staff and volunteers to upskill and increase their capacity so that they’ll be able to run sessions themselves or embrace digital as part of their other activities.

AccessLeeds Libraries’ award-winning tablet lending scheme is the envy of councils up and down the country – they have 285 4G-enabled iPads which they lend to 3 rd sector organisations, free of charge, to allow them to pilot using technology and try new approaches to digital. Over 90 organisations from all over the city and its wards have taken part in this scheme and many have used the evidence gathered to gain funding to buy their own equipment, ensuring that digital inclusion in Leeds will be widespread and sustainable. As well as this there are 34 libraries with public-access PCs and 20 weekly digital skills sessions. There are also infrastructure projects happening like free Wi-Fi being installed in 20 community buildings, an innovative trial of free Wi-Fi for people living in tower blocks, and an exciting future with Cityfibre installing high-speed full-fibre network across Leeds over the next few years.

Motivation/Confidence– Leeds’ Digital Champion training scheme is based around upskilling staff and volunteers at organisations and internally, to be able to have positive conversations around the benefits of digital which enables them to better support their service users with getting online and using digital.  It’s about talking to people and finding out what makes them tick, what might be the hook to get them interested, for example checking the football scores or finding knitting patterns, rather than forcing them down one route. This has been very popular and Leeds now has over 1,000 digital champions who have completed the training.

We’re all in it together

In Leeds we believe that digital is like any other part of modern-day life – everyone should be included and have opportunities to give it a try if they want to. To achieve this, everyone needs to work together and be pulling in the same direction, something Leeds is brilliant at. It’s the charities and the 3rd sector, small businesses and voluntary groups, everyone on the ground making a difference and everyone behind the scenes enabling that to happen.

Digital is a means to an end, not the end itself, it’s a way of achieving whatever task a person is desiring or envisaging. It’s a way of opening up new opportunities and taking away some of the strain. At its core digital inclusion is a powerful form of social inclusion and a way of helping everyone to live better, happier, healthier lives in whatever capacity is best for them.

P.S. I had countless examples that I couldn’t squeeze into this piece but you can learn more and see some of our case studies at

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