As part of London’s Recovery Programme, the city set a goal for “every Londoner to have access to good connectivity, basic digital skills and the device or support they need to be online by 2025.” London’s Chief Digital Officer, Theo Blackwell, sets out the city’s new approach to digital access.
How do we avoid the digital divide becoming the next entrenched inequality? This is a question London and other cities across the world are seeking to answer as the experience of successive lockdown and restrictions has placed the spotlight on those who struggled to get online during the recent crisis.
The digital divide presents itself in different ways. Someone may be digitally excluded due to lack of a device (or enough devices if shared with others); lack of connectivity (being able to afford a connection, or a mobile data allowance access to wifi); lack of digital skills and/or confidence in using digital tools.
Those in economic hardship may have reduced options for benefitting from some online content that sits behind paywalls. Unbanked individuals struggle to transact online or language barriers hinder the use of some online services. Different physical and mental disabilities can hinder online engagement.
Addressing these problems is complex. Information and data about which groups of people experience one or more of these issues can be hard to find or join up. London’s councils and voluntary organisations often lack the means to help all those in need. And even where resources are available — for example through corporate and tech sector initiatives on mentoring, devices or other support — knowing how to reach specific individuals within a given group can be difficult.
Bridging the digital divide is part of city recovery
A priority — or mission -set by the city’s Recovery Board is for every Londoner to have access to good connectivity, basic digital skills and the device or support they need to be online by 2025.
Work started to shape our approach during the summer of 2020, testing our initial ideas against the lived experience of members of the public using the Talk London platform and with a series of workshops gathering front-line experience during the second lockdown. Working with the London Office of Technology & Innovation (LOTI) at London Councils, we also identified also developed a range of resources to support London’s community of practice.
Both councils and business groups told us that a barrier faced during the crisis was identifying need, which often is expressed in high-level reports rather than in a form which supports individuals. In practice this meant that national and local government struggled to satisfy demand, while business involved in corporate giving found it difficult to distribute devices and other offers. At the start of the crisis, LOTI and the Greater London Authority (GLA) started to improve the flow of actionable data by working with practitioners to map digital exclusion better and do so in a way that others could easily adopt. This work also draws on a new partnership with the private sector through the London First Data Commission developed at the same time.
In February the Mayor launched a Digital Exclusion Taskforce to serve as an advisory body to improve digital access across London. The Taskforce is chaired by the Chief Digital Officer for London and includes representation from London Councils, the London boroughs of Ealing, Croydon, Newham, Southwark and Brent, Nominet Trust, Age UK, HEAR Network, BT and Vodafone.
The three elements of our approach
Our Digital Access work joins up two big programmes on infrastructure and skills with a new innovation initiative, joining up work and networks for the first time across councils, civil society, business and adult learning.
LOTI, leading the £1.3m innovation work, will be adopting the Design Council’s Double Diamond approach. Using this methodology will mean that all projects start by defining the real-world outcomes for Londoners first, before deciding what the project will do. LOTI’s work in design thinking and particularly data will also be used to improve our delivery of infrastructure and skills programmes.
- Connected London
First, the Connected London Programme by the GLA/TfL is a major intervention to ensure London has affordable full fibre connections are available to all homes and businesses. TfL’s roll-out of underground 4G mobile services has seen hundreds of kilometres of fibre laid in tunnels, creating a new fibre backbone for London linked surface assets, like buildings and ducting, to support last mile connectivity by private providers to underserved areas.
In addition to the BAI partnership announced in June, the team has secured over £30m in grant funding, including £10m dedicated by the Mayor of London, to deliver new or improved digital services at public sector buildings across London, giving new opportunities to bring digital inclusion projects to the places it will help most. This will also support ‘last mile’ connectivity to less commercially viable areas and not spots. London will be more investable for telecoms providers by teams based in London’s five sub-regions who will work to identify areas of need and problem-solve the sometimes complex legal or administrative barriers identified by councils and industry.
The adoption of the new London Plan in March now makes full fibre connectivity and considerations for mobile infrastructure mandatory during the planning process for all new builds. This creates a benchmark for London’s future connectivity and a more permissive environment for industry to deploy their networks (as developers need their support and guidance to comply with the policy). This policy future proofs London’s connectivity requirements for years to come and ensures that no new build is a not-spot.
The change we expect to see from this is an increase gigabit capable internet connections in homes and businesses through increased coordination and private investment; new digital services being delivered at upgraded public buildings; more competition locally and choice of provider; all new builds connected to full fibre; and work with telecoms firms to expand the reach of social tariffs.
2. Essential Digital Skills for adults
Since 2019, the Mayor has been responsible for London’s Adult Education Budget. This funds the majority of education and training for adults aged 19+ and will play a key role in London’s recovery from Covid-19.
As part of this budget, from August 2020 the Essential Digital Skills Entitlement has been introduced as a new statutory skills entitlement for Londoners, recognising the importance of gaining the digital skills they need to access and participate in the digital aspects of life and work.
The entitlement enables Londoners over the age of 19 years with no to low digital skills to access fully funded entry and Level 1 digital skills courses. Entry level skills are suitable for adults with no or little prior experience of using digital devices or the internet) and Level 1 for adults with some experience of using digital devices and the internet but lacking basic digital skills.
This entitlement is delivered by adult education providers, including colleges and local authority adult learning services. It is essential that these providers work in partnership with community organisations and other local partners to ensure that London’s digital skills offer can reach all our neighbourhoods and help eliminate digital exclusion.
Londoners are already taking these digital skills courses, but as we develop Digital Access we expect to support more Londoners to access the entitlement. This will be through the use of better local data and understanding of user needs; signpost support better when people come into contact with council or voluntary sector services; and develop new opportunities for community-based learning for digitally excluded Londoners.
3. Digital Inclusion Innovation
Third, the GLA and LOTI have launched the Digital Inclusion Innovation Programme (DIIP). LOTI works with all London boroughs and their partners in the public, third and private sectors. the DIIP goal is to use design-led methods to discover, develop and scale initiatives that support digitally excluded Londoners who have been left particularly vulnerable during the pandemic. This work started in June 2021 and will last for 2 years.
This is a departure from the past as it looks at digital access as one of London’s biggest innovation challenges: using the lessons from lived experience and data better, designing around user need and improving collaborating across the city. LOTI’s collaborative approach with all London boroughs brings together a wealth of experience developed by the boroughs themselves, often working with important local partners: must of this is ready to be shared and reused.
Initial projects include:
Acting on insights from Digital Inclusion Mapping Project — The Digital Inclusion Mapping Project is delivering an interactive, demographic map of user needs. This project will build on this to use data to map the scale and nature of digital exclusion in London. The intention is to test how data insights can help improve the targeting of digital inclusion services more effectively.
Device Upcycling — Each year public bodies and businesses retire hundreds of thousands of laptops and other devices. This project explores how we can encourage and help London’s public sector organisations to upcycle their retired devices to benefit digitally excluded Londoners.
Digital Inclusion in Temporary Accommodation — This project aims to address the specific needs of thousands digitally excluded individuals and families living in temporary accommodation.
Supporting Dementia Carers — This project builds on a previous discovery by Community Makers to find ways to find digitally-enabled ways to support the carers of people living with dementia.
Further projects will be develop with London’s councils, voluntary organisations and anchor institutions as these mature. For example, the programme will also work closely with NHS London to understand needs from a health perspective, including digital inclusion as part of social prescribing.
The difference we expect to make from the innovation approach is includes developing an access package that provides a menu of options, backed up by a range of reliable and affordable provision to meet individuals’ essential device, data and skills needs will be available to digitally excluded Londoners.
For borough and voluntary sector staff, practitioners who work with digitally excluded Londoners will be easily able to access quality information, resources, services and peer support on digital inclusion to aid their users. The evidence-base on what works — and the range of mature interventions that can be scaled — will be more extensive. Finally, for corporates involved in corporate giving, information on the scale and nature of digital exclusion in London will be more detailed and easily accessible, giving companies a greater ability to provide offers of philanthropic support where they are most needed.
Devices and schoolchildren after end of DfE scheme
During the lockdowns laptops to access to online learning became essential to children and young people, and look likely to remain so when back in school (or if the school is affected by a COVID-19 breakout). As the Department for Education Device Offer winds down in September 2021, there remains concern around the availability of devices and affordable connections for schoolchildren in low income households.
Regional data on this area is hard to come by as schools are reporting directly to Whitehall, but when London’s councils assessed the need for devices during the 2021 lockdown, they estimated — on average — several thousand schoolchildren per borough without the devices they needed to learn from home. The picture is further complicated by demand for (ongoing) licences for devices, dongles to connect to the internet and IT support/maintenance.
Some, but not all, of this need was met by the DfE programme and other initiatives. During the lockdowns London Grid for Learning, an established not-for-profit providing broadband and other services to London schools, set up a bulk procurement for 100,000 low-cost laptops to schools across England in 2021 (on top of the 100,000 it secured during the first lockdown). Individual boroughs established crowdfunding initiatives (for example, Hackney, Camden and Lambeth) and there was additional support from a range of local civic and corporate giving initiatives.
London’s Digital Access mission will continue work in this important area, but precise numbers remain difficult to determine and it remains unclear what ongoing demand looks like borough by borough or across London. LOTI’s work on device upcycling and looking at digital exclusion in families living in temporary accommodation (above) creates the opportunity to explore this big challenge from different angles. London, through the Mayor and London Councils, will lobby the government for continued support to avoid a cliff-edge for pupils in September onwards.
Building on what’s already working
There are many existing local and national initiatives to build on, and many organisations whose work can inform our own. For example, work by Leeds and Croydon Councils, funded by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG), has led to the creation of the Digital Inclusion Toolkit, which is becoming a hub for useful digital inclusion resources nationwide.
London’s councils have a wealth of experience to bring to bear — from libraries, customer services and care teams. Many of these were in place before the current crisis, but we’ve worked hard to capture the lessons and experience derived from lockdowns.
Organisations like the Good Things Foundation and Nominet have significant experience of collaborating with third sector organisations to address digital exclusion issues. There is also significant private sector experience from corporate digital mentoring and device-giving schemes and the work of FutureDotNow.
What will be different for Londoners as a result?
Today Londoners are served by a wide variety of neighbourhood initiatives, local, city and national government initiatives and individual and industry programmes. Our goal is for Londoners to get the support they need wherever they live in the city: to see digital access as a service by understanding and meeting needs; using data better, and developing solutions together which can be easily shared and reused.
Ultimately, improving digital access is complex, involving building shared capacity between practitioners and creating the conditions to scale projects to directly benefit the end user. Our priorities will be developed in the open with a clear rationale about why they were chosen, who benefits and what the projects will lead to.
Call to action
We’ve set out our Digital Access work above at greater length to be open about reasons, aims and how Londoners will benefit.
Now we’d like to set a call-to-action for others to be involved in this new mission for London:
For Londoners: Lived experience must be our guide, please engage with us in future Talk London discussions if you’ve been supporting someone who digitally excluded or share your views on our work. We will be talking to Londoners directly through non-digital means as the programme develops.
For elected representatives and frontline staff from the NHS and emergency services: Your work with digitally excluded Londoners will also be critical: how does your organisation approach digital access following the lockdowns? What were your experiences?
For anyone working for a London borough who wishes to stay informed or would like to get involved in the Digital Inclusion Innovation Programme, we invite them to join LOTI’s Basecamp forum where we will share details of workshops, project updates and calls for ideas.
For practitioners in all sectors: Please join the show & tells run by LOTI over the coming 18 months and share your insights.
For businesses: for those that are involved in corporate giving, we’d like to hear from you on how we can support your work; we’d also like to talk to businesses about sharing data, so we can understand need better across the city.