Digital divide: cause or effect?

It is beyond challenge that there is a digital divide.  It has been less clear to me whether the existence of that divide is is something to be concerned about in its own right or whether it is an indicator of broader social problems – and so whether it is the symptom or the cause which should be addressed.  Or as one of the commentators to the post by Eszter Hargittai I referred to last week put it:

I am open to arguments about whether the digital divide is something that should be rectified as a tool to reduce social inequality or whether there are far better levers to reduce social inequality that will eventually close the digital divide.

By happy coincidence, and by virtue of the Reboot Britain twitter back channel, comes some material from Helen Milner, managing director of UK online centres, summarising some powerful evidence not just of the existence of the digital divide, but of the breadth and depth of that divide.

On the face of it, though, there are some difficulties with this material.  Slide 26 onwards suggests that internet use increases social inclusion, but it is not clear on the face of it whether people with stronger social inclusion are more likely to use the internet or whether use of the internet leads to stronger social inclusion.  My slight sense of unease was amplified by slide 16, which attributes to the Oxford Internet Survey the arresting figure of 70% of people who live in social housing not being online – though reading through the OxIS questionnaire, it is apparent that no question was asked on housing tenure.

Following the reference to the research commissioned by UK online centres from Freshminds, though, it is not hard to track down the more detailed report, Does the internet improve lives? [pdf]. That presents evidence which supports the existence of a causal relationship, as part of the research looked at people before and after they had learned about computers and the internet with the support of a UK online centre.

UKOnlinecentrespiderchart

The specific financial benefits attributed to research by SQW also turn out to be supported by a much more detailed research report [pdf].  The figures quoted by Helen on slide 27 definitely give pause for thought, but a closer look at the detail of the data suggests very substantial variation even with the bottom income decile.  Of the £276 pa potential average savings notionally available to people in the bottom decile, a fifth comes from higher rates of interest on investments (while 43% of people in the bottom decile have no savings at all, and a further 21% have savings of less than £1500), and a further fifth from motoring, holidays and mortgages (which again the very poorest are unlikely to be spending on).  That’s not to say that this analysis is unimportant, quite the contrary, but it does tend to undermine to a degree the argument that people in the lowest decile are missing out on significant savings from not being online:  those least likely to be using the internet now may very well also be those who have least to gain financially.

That though is a point of detail.  There are two more important questions which it would be good to understand better.

The first is one which is much broader than the UK online centres material:  working out what research in this area is trustworthy and which questionable is not straightforward.  A week ago, for example, NESTA published the results of a survey showing very high levels of internet use:

95 per cent of people questioned are regularly using the web for everyday activities like shopping (92 per cent), providing feedback to a company or organisation (80 per cent), social networking (69 per cent), or accessing information from NHS direct (53 per cent).

Even that was not enough, with apparently untapped demand for government services supporting the slightly tangential headline, ‘Post Office queues to become a thing of the past’:

80 per cent of the public want public services to be made available online and three-quarters of those want this to happen in the next five years.

Unlike the material drawn on by Helen Milner, it seems that NESTA has published only a press release with the only description of the methodology being that the survey is based on a nationally representative sample of UK adults.  Self-evidently, it cannot both be true that 95% of adults are
regularly using the web and that 29% of adults don’t use and 25% have never used the web.  The most immediately plausible explanation is that the NESTA survey is actually of internet users rather than of the population as a whole, but they are not giving enough information to be able to tell one way or the other.

The second interesting question – or rather group of questions – is about the role of government in all of this.  One dimension of government interest is clear enough:  the very existence of UK online centres, extensive work on digital inclusion and the recent appointment of Martha Lane Fox as digital inclusion champion all demonstrate a sense of public responsibility for social inclusion.  But what of government as service provider?  Are government online services one of the carrots for attracting people online, or even an available stick for pushing them online?  To what extent is the lack of access to government services, specifically, a component of digital exclusion?

People don’t end up online for abstract reasons.  As the Freshminds research demonstrates, reasons are very specific:

Users of the internet typically have a specific reason to be online:  Internet users from our survey and focus groups usually started using the internet for a specific reason. These ‘motivational types’ include Communicators, Hobbyists, Transactors, Functionalists, Knowledge-seekers, Family-orientated users and Technophiles, who use technology for its own sake or in order to keep up with the times.

I would be very surprised to learn that more than a tiny number of people – if any at all – chose to go online because of a desire to conduct business with the government.  Doing things with the government is, instead, one of the many opportunities which are available to people once they are online.  Related to that, but not directly consequential on it, the best way of helping those who are currently digitally excluded to access government services may or may not prove to be by first helping them get online for that reason.  As far as I know there is simply no specific research which focuses on that question.

I started this post just with the intention of linking to Helen Milner’s presentation.  I have ended up by finding much more interesting material by following her references than I was expecting to.  Even with that, though, the question of the contribution of government-as-service-provider remains unclear, at least to me.  More thought needed; more evidence welcome.