Social Justice

How communities are tackling the digital divide

More and more vital tasks are now digital only but too many people are being left behind without the skills or tools to take advantage.

ClearCommunityWeb holds workshops to teach people digital skills. Image: ClearCommunityWeb

With the world around us shifting further online each day, digital skills are no longer an asset, but a vital skill. From online banking, to job applications, to booking doctors appointments, to staying in touch with friends and family, being able to use digital devices is an essential part of our everyday lives. 

But for 14 million people in the UK who have the lowest digital capability, digital transformation means being further locked out. Not just a matter of physical access, the widening digital skills gap is leaving millions of people unable to access vital services and support.

Research by Age UK published earlier this year found nearly a third of London councils do not offer a way to apply for housing benefit or council tax rebates without internet access. This February, parliament’s communications and digital committee launched an inquiry into digital exclusion and the cost of living crisis, which showed the government is slowly starting to recognise the importance of digital inclusion in combating poverty.

Grassroots organisations are filling the gaps and providing essential support and training to those who need it. Digital skills are now an essential part of everyday life, and through these empowering community interventions, community networks are closing the digital divide.

Starting Point is a community partnership based in local centres across Stockport. Their Digital Lending Library, set up in collaboration with the Good Things Foundation, provides community members with access to devices and data for free, making sure everyone is able to get online.

Since the start of the cost of living crisis, they’ve seen a rise in people giving up their devices to save money. Currently two million households are struggling to afford their internet bills. 

“People are cutting down on phone bills and broadband as a result of the cost of living crisis. Many people aren’t aware of the social tariffs, which mean providers offer cheaper broadband deals if you claim some types of benefits, and this leads to people becoming digitally excluded when they can’t afford to get online.” said James Wilson, digital training officer at Starting Point.

People who complete their courses can also volunteer to become “digital champions” as a way of giving back to the project and consolidating their learning.

“Our Digiknow Friends course is a full day of training to teach people who have done the sessions themselves how to teach other learners digital skills. It’s great because often when you’re speaking tech language it can go over people’s heads, but our learners who have attended the sessions themselves know how to speak the learner’s language, they can say ‘When they said that to me, this is how I thought of it,’” James tells Big Issue.

In the UK, nearly 3 million people are offline, and 67 per cent of these are aged 70 or over. Polly Senter is the chair of Lewes & Villages Seniors, one of the many forums supported by the county council throughout East Sussex, a county which has the second largest percentage of over 65s in the country. They offer free drop-in sessions for over 65s needing help using their phones.

“Increasingly, everyone wants us to use an app to access basics like parking, local government services, and GP support and medication. The alternatives are challenging to find, poorly maintained and funded, or non-existent –  all of which is sidelining us.” says Polly.

Older people are not the only community being negatively impacted by digital exclusion. Due to digital poverty being linked to social disadvantage, people from marginalised backgrounds are more at risk. Research from Ofcom found that limited users of the internet are 1.5 times more likely to be from Black, Asian and minority ethnic groups compared with extensive users. 

“The cost of living crisis has meant that people who are digitally excluded are unable to access grants and support available to them. We have people coming to us needing assistance with paying their bills online, accessing universal credit, or even the healthy start scheme.” says Malathy Muthu, CEO of Skills Enterprise an organisation based in East London that offers support with digital skills and welfare support. 



Research by the Big Issue found last year that 91 per cent of people believe being able to access and use the internet is vital in finding and securing a job. For many, language is a massive barrier to using digital technology, but Skills Enterprise has a range of translators in the team, who help people who do not have English as a first language the chance to get familiar and confident using computers.

“One woman we helped went from not knowing how to use a computer, to being able to create a CV, apply for a job online and secure her first job interview.” says Malathy.

ClearCommunityWeb, a social enterprise in south London, offers classes, workshops and individual support to help people feel more confident and comfortable with technology.

“Our mobile phone boot camps are our most successful programme, we get over 30 people attending to come and practice with our mobile phones, and discuss issues around scams, online safety and data sharing.” says Capsar Kennerdale, managing director at ClearCommunityWeb.

Since the start of the cost of living crisis, demand for their digital skills support has shot up, with over 500 people getting help so far this year. This is no surprise. Research by YouGov and Development Economics found that missing out on online deals can cost families £286 per month, pushing them further into financial hardship. 

The government is slowly beginning to get digital inclusion on the agenda, but are still lagging behind community efforts.

“Support at the grassroots is often more trusted, especially by marginalised groups,” says Caspar.

With no end to the cost of living crisis in sight, they could make all the difference. 

Do you have a story to tell or opinions to share about this? We want to hear from you. Get in touch and tell us more.

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