Mark McCusker

Spanning the Digital Divide

While there is an expectation for us to organise our entire lives online, is current digital infrastructure limiting real inclusion?

Digital technology is revolutionizing our lives. Most of us already live half of our lives online - an issue which can disrupt many a family meal, work meeting or social occasion. The internet is now so integrated into our lives that we can barely get through the day without posting updates on social media.

Whatever your personal opinions are, there is no doubt that the internet plays a significant, and growing, part in the way we live. We book flights online, secure hotel reservations, apply for jobs, do banking, make doctor’s appointments and research the web for offers and information that is relevant to us.

Private, public and third sector organisations are increasingly pushing us to ‘self-serve’, both for convenience and cost saving. The Cabinet Office recently stated that, for some government services, the average cost of a digital transaction is almost 20 times lower than carrying out a similar transaction over the phone. Just by interacting online it has been estimated that we can each benefit from a minimum of £143 savings per annum, and save 30 minutes per person per transaction.

However, there is a significant gap emerging between what we are asked to do, to serve ourselves online, and our capabilities and capacity to successfully do so. There are many potential barriers to overcome in even the simplest transactions, and the number of people this affects is huge, and growing all the time. We can roughly group these barriers to digital inclusion into three inter-related themes:

Physical Access 

To access online services and products, it is necessary for users to have access to the technology required to get online. The exponential growth in smartphone usage certainly puts internet access at most of our fingertips. 14% of UK households, however, still have no physical access to the internet.

Digital skills/ability

12 million people in the UK are unable to get online to access services or make a purchase. The reasons for this are many: disabilities/impairments, language challenges, print difficulties, low literacy and poor digital skills. Age also has a bearing on whether you are online or not. It is encouraging to see increasing numbers of ‘silver-surfers’, but many of the older generation are still reluctant to embrace digital technology.

This is not something we can just ignore, particularly as the NHS moves further towards online services. We are an ageing population and this is not going to change any time soon. In 2012, the number of people living in the UK aged 100 increased by 73% over the last decade, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS). Provision needs to be made to get older generations online, and support them as they use digital technology.


Users may have access to the technologies required, such as a mobile phones and broadband, but require assistive technologies to help them access online content. Assistive technologies can help to compensate for functional deficits and improve the quality of life for people with disabilities. For example there are screen readers for the blind or visually impaired, screen magnifiers and text enlargers for those with milder visual impairments, text readers for those with dyslexia or difficulty reading and online translators for people with language challenges.

These tools are often costly and, as Microsoft and Forrester research concluded, "there is a negative correlation with disability and earning power and there is a higher proportion of disabled people among the lower socio-economic groups." In other words, those who need assistive technologies to access the internet can least afford it and those who cannot afford it are more likely to need it.

A digitally inclusive society means that everyone has equal access to digital technology, enabling them to benefit from identified cost savings and convenience. If we are to achieve this in the UK we need to ensure that the people who need assistance accessing online services and content have it for free.

Using a social business model, assistive software can be made available free of charge to the end user, with the costs borne by website owners. Such software sits on the website and anyone visiting the site can access the extra assistance they need to navigate the web pages through an icon which launches a toolbar - or an equivalent.

There are clear economic benefits to businesses that are digitally inclusive. It is a much cheaper and more effective way of getting products and services in front of a wider audience. Additionally, by making provision for the UK’s digitally excluded, businesses could be tapping into a combined spending power of £80 billion.

The benefits to government organisations are massive too. Focusing on the NHS, which is facing a funding gap of £22bn by 2020, improved digital efficiency and innovation is expected to save up to £8.3 bn in total.

It is in every business and organisation’s interest to make getting online as easy as possible. We need more assistive technology solutions that are free to end-users. Businesses, charities, government organisations and individuals; we will all reap the reward of being able to access services and products conveniently - and for less.


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