What was the problem?
In societies where online access to public and private services is the norm, people without access to or the skills to use the Internet can find themselves increasingly excluded and isolated in both social and economic terms.
If the strategies used to achieve more equal participation in Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) are ineffective or inefficient, inequalities only increase, bringing further detriment to the economic and social well-being of people who are already disadvantaged.
What we did do?
Six million people in the UK suffered deep digital and social deprivation in 2008, according to research conducted by LSE Associate Professor of Media and Communications Ellen Helsper.
Her research has focused on digital inclusion and exclusion and on the link between digital media access and use and social inclusion and wellbeing, with particular emphasis on people who are vulnerable both psychologically and in terms of socio-economic status.
Her recommendations on the links between digital and social exclusion in her 2008 report for the UK Department of Communities and Local Government, and in the Oxford Internet Survey – WIP reports that same year, were directly taken up in the UK Government’s Delivering Digital Inclusion Action Plan.
Since joining LSE in 2009, Helsper has conducted further analysis on the original research data to explain the interdependencies underlying these links. She looked, for instance, at how and why certain types of social exclusion are linked to similar types of digital exclusion, and at the effect of different life stages on people's engagement with digital technology.
Most crucially, she challenged the commonly held assumption that giving people cheaper access to computers and improving their digital skills are the most important factors in getting disadvantaged groups online. Helsper's research showed that, in fact, social structures and the communities within which people live are as important — if not more so — in driving their use of digital technology.
Helsper's research generated awareness that digital exclusion is embedded in social disadvantage and cannot be eradicated simply by providing more infrastructure. Her 2008 revelation about the numbers of people in the UK suffering deep digital and social deprivation became a rallying call for the government-backed Race Online campaign.
At a cost of some £965,000, the government's Digital Inclusion action plan established a consortium of 1,500 charities, businesses and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) dedicated to encouraging millions of people online by the end of 2012. Turning away from policies that concentrated solely on access, the campaign devoted its attention to social support networks. Estimates suggest that it achieved 2.2 million new users.
The Welsh Assembly also declared its support for embedding digital inclusion in wider social policies. The approach to digital inclusion adopted in Wales emphasised the provision of digital skills training in concert with the roll-out of new infrastructure.
Helsper's subsequent research was critical of the Race Online approach in terms of judging success purely by the numbers and forgoing a more thorough investigation into exactly how people engaged with the technology and to what effect.
Race Online's successor—Go On UK, a cross-sectoral partnership founded by Age UK, the Big Lottery Fund, E.ON, the Post Office, TalkTalk, Lloyds Banking Group and the BBC—drew on Helsper's research to link a set of basic digital skills to specific areas of engagement.
Go On UK's basic skills set was part of a pledge to which businesses and service providers in the UK signed up, guaranteeing that their employees and clients would achieve a minimum level of digital literacy. If fully implemented, it was expected to benefit 16 million individuals.
Helsper's research also influenced the UK Online Centres (now Tinder Foundation), the largest national charity aimed at giving people access to the internet and helping them learn how to use it. From an initial concentration in centres of formal learning, such as libraries and community centres, the centres refocused their efforts on deprived environments where the most disadvantaged people in society interacted with organisations.
Helsper's work also had influence in Europe, where the Seville-based Institute for Prospective Technology Studies fed her research conclusions into i2010, the European Commission's Information Society strategy. In Sweden, her work informed debate about a 'digital by default' strategy and encouraged the government to focus on internet use rather than infrastructure.
Helsper was also consulted by the UK's commercial and third sectors, including BT, the BBC's Media Literacy Programme, Citizens Online and the industry regulator Ofcom. She sat on advisory boards such as the ethics committee of the BCS, the Chartered Institute for IT.
Helsper regularly published research and blogs that called for a more targeted approach for all groups to encourage an equal sharing in the benefits of information technology. Important channels for this message included the Social Digital Research Symposia, which she organised three times a year in collaboration with the UK Online Centres.
In 2015 the Go On UK Digital Exclusion Heatmap was published online, showing the likelihood of digital exclusion across the UK. Helsper was involved in the development of this heatmap, as well as the Local Government Association, the BBC as part of its Make It Digital initiative, and Lloyds Banking Group. The Heatmap is in the process of being replicated for metropolitan areas in the UK, US, Latin America and Australia. Helsper also continues this work through leading the Government Digital Services’ Working Group developing an evaluation metric and toolkit called ‘What Works for Who in Digital Inclusion Interventions’.