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Coronavirus Spaces and services

Why is digital connectivity important for communities during COVID-19 and beyond?

Ahead of our event exploring this question, Helen Milner , CEO of the Good Things Foundation shares her thoughts on how digital connectivity is important for communities during COVID-19 and beyond. 

One thing that is beyond doubt is that communities have played a vital role across the UK in the response to this pandemic, with uptake in community self-organising and volunteering and many positive stories being reported up and down the UK. Yet, COVID-19 has also laid bare the state of digital exclusion, in terms of both access and skills, which continues to exacerbate inequalities in communities across the UK. In almost two decades of working in digital inclusion, there have been things that have shocked me in the last two months.

From the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, issues of digital exclusion, lack of skills and the challenges of internet affordability has never been more apparent, with countless stories of the realities of data poverty being heard across our network and beyond. ONS data tells us that 1.9 million households do not have access to the internet, and we know from our community partners that people are having to make decisions between buying food or data.

Yes, being digitally connected means someone can connect to the internet and has the skills to use it, but digital connectivity is also the social connection that can be gained from digital technology.

It allows an individual to participate in virtual coffee mornings, online classes, and video calls with friends and family.

Whilst the human desire for social connection has been the most significant benefit that people have gained from digital connectivity, there are many other things that people offline are excluded from during this pandemic. People who are extremely vulnerable have been able to get priority online shopping slots, saving them from the need to risk socially-distant shopping. People with health conditions have been able to connect with their healthcare providers to get accurate advice and arrange prescriptions online. People who are facing financial uncertainty have been able to apply for universal credit and apply for jobs online to ensure a degree of stability in their income. But, in this time of uncertainty, these things are more easily available to those who have the means to do so online, excluding a large number of people and creating additional barriers at the worst possible time.

COVID-19 has made it clear that being able to connect digitally is an essential, not a luxury – it is a need to have, not a nice to have.

In March 2020, as a society, we rapidly accelerated the shift to digital ways of working, socialising and accessing key information, but this is not the experience for all. Not everyone has experienced lockdown equally. We have seen amazing community partners across the country go above and beyond to maintain support for the people around them so that no one would be left behind, and for many, this has been alongside the uncertainty of their own finances and own futures. Communities, and the organisations within them, play a key yet often overlooked role in supporting society, especially those most at risk of being excluded.

I was surprised how a key barrier to being an internet user – motivation and relevance – has been swept aside due to the crisis, with many people now understanding why they need the internet, and many of them not having the money to be included. Good Things Foundation has partnered with FutureDotNow to deliver the DevicesDotNow campaign, seeking to get devices and connectivity to those most vulnerable in society, and have got thousands of devices and digital skills support out to communities that need it most through community organisations. We have seen a much higher demand than current resources allow, underlining the urgent need for investment in this area alongside the essential support in developing digital skills.

The annual digital inclusion stats came out last week; the 2020 Lloyd’s Consumer Digital Index shows that an estimated 9 million people cannot use the internet and their device by themselves, and 11.7 million lack the essential digital skills for life. Whilst not unsurprising after two decades of working in digital inclusion, statistics like these are still a stark reminder of the work needed to be done.

What would an ideal future hold?

Many questions are likely to be discussed in the aftermath of the pandemic, about the role of communities and how we rebuild economically and socially as a nation. At Good Things Foundation we are determined to help people become happier, healthier and better off through digital, and in whatever post COVID-19 world we find ourselves in this remains the same. I believe in a community network led model and are proud of the way we work with our community partners and what we have achieved. It’s the blend of digital tools and virtual support alongside hyper-local contact and local trusted people that is really making a huge difference. Communities are a powerful force in challenging social inequalities, and now it is clearer than ever that digital exclusion is social exclusion.

We have long-called for a 100% digitally included nation, and I believe that this is vital for recovery.

We need businesses, government, local authorities, communities and individuals to work together to truly bridge this digital divide, and we can not afford to go back to “business as usual”. We need to find a way to maintain the motivation, trust, community spirit and sense of togetherness after this crisis, whilst reassessing our outlook on society’s digital skills and how we embed digital inclusion – this is where the real challenge lies.

Register to attend our event on this topic, hosted by Local Trust in partnership with Good Things Foundation.