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Digital Inclusion in Leeds: how proactivity on all levels is key

In many ways, digital innovation represents the bleeding edge of much of our accelerating societal progress: computing power increases exponentially year-on-year, apps are updated by the week, and we carefully curate our own digital personas every day. But what of those without access to the tech we take for granted to whom the online world is still uncharted territory and a smartphone an object of trepidation and uncertainty? The unrelenting advancements in consumer technology and all its associated daily benefits are surely a welcome part of the ever-connected, avatar-focused world we now inhabit, but for anyone unable to get a foothold on even the simpler end of the online spectrum, to be left out in the digital cold is a real and commonly-occurring possibility.

In fact, a 2017 Leeds City Council scrutiny board report on digital inclusion estimated that digital exclusion may cost each of the City’s 90,000 residents who are offline or lacking in basic digital skills over £1000 each per year in missed opportunities, in areas such as financial savings and job opportunities. Furthermore, it predicted that digitally including this population could potentially offer economic benefits to Leeds itself to the tune of almost £45m over the next 10 years. These socio-economic discrepancies are being addressed through an ambitious 20-year project to ‘power up the Leeds economy through digital inclusion’.

Those unable to make use of technology on a daily basis are often the people who would benefit most from certain aspects of online activity. Ordering supermarket products through a website or app when accessing the shop is a challenge in itself; paying a bill or setting up a direct debit for utilities through online banking; or using social media and simple email to communicate with friends and family would greatly aid the more disadvantaged or socially isolated members of our community.

The Leeds-based community interest company Get Technology Together (GTT) is one independent organisation which seeks to address the lack of opportunity to learn and experiment with practical technology applications across a range of areas in the City. Founded as a legacy of the Get IT Together partnership project between Leeds City Council, British Telecom and Citizens Online, which ran from 2012-2015, today it strives to help individuals and organisations alike gain skills and confidence to use technology, supporting an investment in opportunities for people.

“The people who had lived and worked with the digital inclusion partnership realised after its conclusion that the job of teaching digital skills in Leeds had only just started”, says founder Vic Berry. “Technology itself was in constant flux and everyone was at various points of the learning curve, struggling to keep up. We knew that the most disadvantaged needed to be able to access online services to be able to compete in the job market and generally keep up with an ever-changing world.”

Through the formation of City-wide local partnerships, Get Technology Together has set up digital access points within communities that offer a friendly drop-in space with support. Tutors also offer bespoke course to address specific needs of attendees. One recent success was the result of helping an elderly lady learn how to get the most out of Google Maps, who went on to plan a complicated journey using public transport to independently visit her son in the south of the country. Her previous option would involve slowly and laboriously piece together a route, referring to a number of transport providers and juggling several sets of information. While this action becomes almost instantaneous with a tool as comprehensive and user-friendly as Google Maps, for the uninitiated it presents itself as a daunting step into the technological unknown.

The benefits felt by those exposed to the initiative are not just restricted to recipients of training and skills acquisition. A former volunteer for the project had previously worked as a university lecturer in Computer Science overseas and sought asylum in the UK. They went on to secure a paid teaching job as a result of the work experience gained at GTT. Collectively investing in raising our level of digital education on a national level also presents life-changing opportunities for those imparting knowledge and training, not just the recipients of it.

GTT now has in excess of 200 registered students, some of whom have gained invaluable confidence and skills with their devices, and others who are now moving on to further training and employment opportunities. GTT also plays a role in areas beyond general proficiency; a lack of available money is often a factor in limited access to technology and subsequent digital exclusion, which Vic is always conscious of. “We’ve helped people, businesses and community groups develop an online presence and even assisted with computer networks and hardware refurbishment. Our lab project recycles donated technology and brings it back into use through local charity shop distribution.” With well-documented mountains of waste electronics identified as a growing problem, making the most of devices that may not be the most up-to-date but still fully functioning could prove to be hugely important to widening the general digital access pool to those for whom money is indeed an inhibitor to simply getting online.

If the pace of technological advancement continues unabated, the role of collectives promoting digital inclusion will become all the more crucial later down the line, especially with the growing power and influence of algorithms and automation. “We’re very interested in exploring the potential of artificial intelligence and how it will affect people on an individual level, and how automated technology integrates into our lives in future is a hot topic for discussion, especially the ethics of how it is used.

The existence of localised communities of inhabitants with limited access to the internet or basic online know-how presents one problem to cities like Leeds, but when artificial intelligence ingrains itself deeper into our daily lives there may be an even more profound risk that digital exclusion evolves into one which is even more of a problematic social barrier. As a result, this is something which people like Vic are keen to stay ahead of the curve on, and even play a role in shaping: “Our Lab project is already starting to develop ideas for new projects in this regard for the years to come, and generate interest in them across our students.”

Perhaps in a future world the old lady who goes to visit her son benefits from her journey being automatically planned and booked by a personal digital assistant. It might add ingredients for her favourite dinner to her son’s shopping list to remind him when he’s next at the supermarket, as well as schedule a central heating boost from Friday to Sunday, just to make it that little bit more comfortable. Whether or not technology and AI will increasingly affect our daily lives at some point in the future is perhaps a moot point, but ensuring everyone can comfortably interact with the right devices, programmes and interfaces to enjoy its advantages is something we must prioritise.

What is profoundly clear to see is that while it’s a minority of individuals in specific areas of Leeds that directly benefit from digital inclusion initiatives, the whole City will ultimately benefit from a comprehensive long-term programme seeking to give everyone the same opportunities – and that, intrinsically, includes those of us with the fortunate privilege of being able to live in and around the digital space both personally and professionally.

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