Published 3 November 2021

The Digital Divide: Lived experience of ethnic minority and marginalised communities in York

Claire Boardman writes about her research exploring the digital divide as part of North Yorkshire County Council’s (NYCC) ‘Technology Change and IT Development’ project. 

The project will feed into NYCC’s landscape evaluation of digital experience in the region and involves research and evaluation, and development of a digital toolkit to support rural businesses and communities. Ultimately, the project aims to raise aspirations via skills and training, creating employment opportunities and industry connections. 

From the early weeks of the first lockdown in March 2020, the extent of digital exclusion in the UK, the ‘Digital Divide’, became apparent and impossible to ignore. 

During this time and in collaboration with the University of York's Directorate of Research and Enterprise, I was able to supplement my PhD research - which explores the potential of digital archives and storytelling to promote social cohesion and action – with a small study of the lived experience of the Digital Divide or more specifically, digital exclusion in York. 

I deliberately focused on the ethnic minority and marginalised communities who had participated in or were otherwise associated with my research project, including traveller, homeless and refugee communities in York. I interviewed community leaders, mentors, and members to identify the following key themes: 

COMMUNITY BASED, LED AND COLLABORATIVE SUPPORT: Participants felt that, given the variability in digital skills in the ethnic minority and marginalised communities they serve and their innate vulnerability, they are best placed to identify instances of digital exclusion and determine the type of support needed. However, it was also felt that to be truly effective, this must be delivered through collaboration between themselves, and between them as a group and the Local Authority. A network underpinned by the ethos that an individual connected to one, was connected to all. 

CENTRALISED EXPERTISE AND SUPPORT: Participants, often members of the community they serve, acknowledged that their own digital knowledge and skills had limits and that it was difficult if not impossible to keep up with the rapidly changing digital world. They all felt that they would benefit from access to dedicated, expert central resources providing timely and consistent advice and practical support. 

CO-DESIGNED SERVICES AND SUPPORT: Participants shared their frustrations with ‘digital first’ strategies, especially in relation to essential State services such as Universal Credit and Housing. Central to this is the remote development of processes and systems which do not consider the specific needs and limitations of ethnic minority and marginalised communities. Many already provide cultural competency education and would welcome the opportunity to co-design services and support programmes. 

WHOLE-LIFE APPROACH: Participants acknowledged that the development of digital skills could and should not be separated from the development of wider life skills; managing personal finances and budgeting being key to affordability, as strong risk assessment skills are to online safety. Their experiences showed that the best outcomes were achieved by taking whole-life approaches, tailored to the individual but taking into consideration the wider family/household situation. 

SIGNIFICANT, LONG-TERM COMMITMENT: Participants explained that for some members of their community, complex issues and intersectionality may prevent or restrict levels of digital inclusion requiring on-going assisted access and/or support just to maintain current digital competencies. However, it was strongly felt that this should not constrain the potential of, or opportunities for, the community as a whole and that long term development programmes are required to provide the advanced digital knowledge and skills demanded by today’s workplaces. 

While small in scale, targeting those communities most affected by digital exclusion, showed that the Digital Divide is a much more complex situation than the ‘elderly issue’ or ‘generational lagging’ it is often conceived and portrayed as. This means that common approaches such as one-off interventions of training courses and equipment provision are often ineffective. 

Further, approaching digital exclusion as separate to and without deference to individual and household circumstances can, in the worst-case scenario, place individuals, particularly women and girls, at risk both on and offline. 

Acknowledging and understanding the lived experience of ethnic minority and marginalised communities opens up the Digital Divide space for more impactful design and innovative solutions. Initiatives such as York’s Public Living Rooms and the Digital Inclusion Lab are leading the way in collaborative, community-led, long-term digital accessibility and upskilling. 

Although born of necessity these and similar programmes have proven both effective and enduring. The individuals and teams involved are, however, the first to admit that they are limited by both access to financial and other resources, and their own existing knowledge and level of digital expertise. This provides clear priority areas and opportunities for Central Government, Local Authorities, Universities and Colleges and other local organisations and groups to help minimise the Digital Divide.

FURTHER READING: 

Blank, G., Graham, M. and Calvino, C. ‘Local Geographies of Digital Inequality’, Social Science Computer Review, 36(1), pp. 82–102. (2018). Available at: https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2910555

Broadband must be made affordable for everyone. London. Citizens Advice (2021). Available at: https://www.citizensadvice.org.uk/Global/CitizensAdvice/Consumer%20publications/Broadband%20must%20be%20made%20affordable%20for%20everyone%20(3).pdf

Data poverty and devices. Sheffield. Good Things Foundation (2020). Good Things Foundation. Available at: https://www.goodthingsfoundation.org/the-digital-divide/data-poverty/

Financial Exclusion and Digital Exclusion Often Go Hand In Hand (2020). Good Things Foundation. Available at: https://www.goodthingsfoundation.org/what-we-do/news/financial-exclusion-and-digital-exclusion-often-go-hand-in-hand/

Making Connections: Community-led action on data poverty. Local Trust (2021). Available at: https://localtrust.org.uk/insights/research/making-connections-community-led-action-on-data-poverty/