RSE Digital Inclusion Inquiry: interim report out for consultation
Members of this Cross Party Group will know only too well the facts and figures of digital exclusion in Scotland. Some 1.3 million people are either without internet access or lacking basic digital skills. Home broadband take-up stands at 70%. Many of our 113,000 small businesses are not yet making full – or in some cases any – use of digital tools.
But, as importantly, members will recognise what this means for those who are not digitally included. While many people go online to access music and films, to keep in touch with family and friends or to pursue their own hobbies, being online then enables them to do so much more than this. Accessing government services, health care and a huge range of employment, education and training opportunities are only some of the most obvious examples. Digital exclusion is increasingly becoming as considerable a contributor to social deprivation as more traditional measures such as low income, ill health or poor education. In Scotland, as elsewhere, we see a strong correlation between low broadband take-up and areas of multiple deprivation. Without action, there is a real risk that a growing digital divide will only add to existing inequalities.
The Royal Society of Edinburgh’s inquiry into spreading the benefits of digital participation is looking afresh at the barriers to digital inclusion and how Scotland – the Scottish Government in partnership with the private and voluntary sectors – can support people and organisations to overcome them. What are the pillars of a successful digital society? How can we achieve a step change in uptake? How can we ensure digital technologies help to narrow, rather than widen, social divides?
Our interim report was published in December, setting out the inquiry’s emerging conclusions and recommendations for consultation. Calling for the Scottish Government to assume overall accountability for ensuring that everyone has access to digital inclusion, and the skills needed to participate, the report also points to international neighbours such as Iceland, Sweden and Norway, where broadband connectivity and use is already above 90%.
We highlight three key factors that are crucial to universal inclusion. Affordable access requires not only having the right communications infrastructure in place in Scotland but also new ways for people to get an affordable connection. The work of the Wheatley Group in providing access to housing association tenants is an innovative example of how this might work. We call also for greater public access to public assets already in place, such as computing facilities in schools.
Of course, people and organisations must have the motivation to make use of this access. We identify the need to focus interventions at the community level: people will only recognise the relevance of the internet to them when their friends, customers, businesses they depend on or others who share their interests are also online.
And, finally, everyone must have skills and confidence to use digital technologies safely, responsibly and creatively. Digital literacy for all is one aspect of this, but a thriving digital society requires an education system – from pre-school through to secondary and tertiary – that embeds the use of digital technologies and thinking across all subjects, and that can be applied to all industries.
The interim report can be found at www.digiscot.net and feedback is welcome by 8 February. The inquiry’s final report will be published in Spring 2014.
Michael Fourman, Royal Society of Edinburgh