LSE research has transformed how national and international organisations measure, design, and implement policies to tackle digital inequalities.
What was the problem?
As societies rapidly become more reliant on digital technologies, there is optimism that the widespread adoption of information and communication technologies, such as the internet and mobile phones, will provide economic, cultural, and social opportunities to the most disadvantaged in many parts of the world. The expectation is often that improving access to digital communication allows left-behind societies to catch up with places and people who are traditionally better off.
However, digital and social exclusion relate to each other, and to assess the possibilities for greater digital engagement, first we need to measure the nature of digital inequalities and understand for whom and under which circumstances digitisation is likely to lead to wider social benefits.
What did we do?
Professor Ellen Helsper leads the project “From Digital Skills to Tangible Outcomes” (DiSTO) at LSE. Her research has shifted the focus of research about digital inequalities, from examining mere increases in individuals’ access to and use of information and communication technologies (ICTs), towards understanding and measuring the tangible economic, socio-cultural, and personal wellbeing outcomes of digital inclusion.
Digital inclusion has often been conceived only in terms of whether an individual has access to the right technologies. But, as Helsper asks, “Surely the nature of what is done with the technology also matters?” Helsper’s 2012 work changed thinking on this by theorising how specific types of digital and social exclusion relate to each other.
In subsequent research, she has examined how existing patterns of inequalities are reinforced by digitisation, creating a “digital underclass” through, for example, examining the motivations of non-users and establishing the terminology of the “third-level digital divide”. While second-level inequalities refer to internet skills and usage, the third level concerns the outcomes or benefits of such use. Helsper found that historically advantaged people are more likely to (be able to) take advantage of available digital opportunities. Therefore, the more services migrate online, the more likely it is that those who are better off will benefit disproportionately.
The DiSTO project began in 2015 as a pilot led by Helsper in collaboration with Professor Alexander van Deursen (University of Twente) and Professor Rebecca Eynon (Oxford Internet Institute). It developed a comprehensive set of ICT skills, use, and outcome metrics, including the widely adopted Internet Skills Scale, which encompasses five core skills: operational, information navigation, social, creative, and mobile skills. Helsper built this into an international academic network which has conducted comparative research using the DiSTO methodology. Chaired by Helsper and funded by governments and research councils, the network researched the third-level digital divide through surveys, interviews, and mapping of socio-digital inequalities in numerous countries.
The Internet Skills Scale has since been developed further and applied in several international academic projects. Analysis of Dutch data, for example, showed that non-technical skills such as content creation and communication abilities are linked to beneficial offline outcomes, which demonstrates the value of training in “softer” digital skills.
Helsper’s research also showed how geography is vital to outcomes: some disadvantaged individuals were able to take up opportunities that others, living elsewhere, could not. Consequently, Helsper led research that used visual mapping of social and digital exclusion at the neighbourhood level in the UK. This has all contributed to shifting the emphasis in research and interventions from the individual level towards network and local community examinations of digital inequalities.
The DiSTO project has radically changed the way national and international organisations measure, design, and implement policy interventions that aim to tackle inequalities in increasingly digital societies.
Firstly, it has changed how digital skills are measured. In 2015, Helsper collaborated with the UK research-based charity Doteveryone to create skills and outcomes measures based on the DiSTO framework, which Lloyds Bank then incorporated into its annual UK Consumer Digital Index. This is the national standard against which progress on digital inclusion is mapped and measured, and it is used by the government, commercial, and third sectors to identify inequalities. For example, the British Digital Skills Partnership uses it to design targeted digital skills training and provide tools and benchmarks to hold its partners to account for their progress (including public, commercial, and charity organisations).
Similarly, in Brazil the Centre for Studies on the Development of the Information Society (CETIC.br) and the Brazilian Centre for Analysis and Planning (CEBRAP) have used DiSTO measures to map digital skills and outcomes and, in the latter’s case, to produce annual survey indicators to assess how local communities are performing in terms of social and digital inequalities. This has enabled targeted interventions in left-behind areas, creating an important reference for Brazilian NGOs and organisations working for equality.
Helsper’s work also influenced the European Commission’s DigComp framework, which identifies the key components of digital competence for EU member states. As a result, since 2016 its framework has emphasised “softer” skills and the design of and investment in digital literacy policies.
This work in Europe and Brazil has in turn helped to shape the UN International Telecommunication Union’s (ITU) household indicator surveys. ITU worked with Helsper to revise its digital skills metrics, which are used by 113 national statistics offices that supply the ITU/World Bank’s digital development indicators with data. These now incorporate strategic and critical elements of digital literacy provision as well as technical skills.
A second broad area of influence for Helsper’s work has been to help shift digital inclusion practices towards addressing social wellbeing outcomes, not just acquiring devices and skills. Within the UK, this has shaped the work of several NGOs and the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), which launched its “Digital Inclusion Evaluation Toolkit” in 2017. This is used by commercial and third-sector organisations to evaluate the effectiveness of their digital inclusion work in terms of social outcomes. At a European level, Helsper’s research informed the European Commission’s thinking on digital inequalities, as it developed a six-step tool for designing and evaluating policies in this area. This made identifying the most socio-economically and socio-culturally vulnerable the starting point and reducing inequalities the benchmark for measuring any success. This was a move away from earlier approaches that measured success simply based on the number of devices acquired and the number of individuals trained in digital skills.
Helsper’s research has changed how digital inequalities are measured at local, national, and international levels. These changes in measurement accompanied a related change in the frameworks to design and evaluate interventions. This shift in focus makes digital policy and practice more effective and sustainable in tackling inequality in increasingly digital societies, ultimately benefiting the most vulnerable individuals in society.