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The Fight to Make Leeds a Digitally Inclusive City

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In many ways, digital innovation represents the bleeding edge of much of our accelerating societal progress on the whole; computing power increases exponentially year-on-year, apps are updated by the week, and we carefully curate our own digital personas almost to the minute. But what happens to those borne of another time and place, for whom the online world is still unchartered territory and a smartphone an object of trepidation and uncertainty? The unrelenting advancements in consumer-level technology and all its associated daily benefits are surely a welcome part of the ever-connected, avatar-focussed world we now inhabit, but for anyone unable to get a foothold in even the simpler end of the online spectrum, to be left out in the digital cold is a real - and commonly occurring - possibility.

In fact, a 2017 Leeds City Council scrutiny board report on digital inclusion estimated that it may cost each of the city’s 90,000 residents who are offline or lacking in basic digital skills over £1,000 each per year in missed opportunities in areas such as financial savings and job opportunities. Furthermore, it predicted that digitally including this population could potentially offer economic benefits to Leeds itself to the tune of almost £45m over the next 10 years. These socio-economic discrepancies are, thankfully, on the radar of the council and form part of a 20-year project to ‘power up the Leeds economy through digital inclusion’.

 

Leeds canal side

Being unable to make use of technology that a large proportion of us take for granted on a daily basis would mean missing out on even the most mundane aspects of online activity, rendered even more of a disadvantage for sections of society that would perhaps benefit most from them: ordering supermarket products through a website or app when accessing the shop is a challenge in itself; paying a bill or setting up a direct debit for utilities through online banking; using social media or simple email to communicate with friends and family despite being isolated in terms of community.

'Safety Net' initiatives

The Leeds-based community interest company Get Technology Together is one independent organisation which seeks to address the lack of opportunity to learn and experiment with practical technology applications across a range of areas in the city. Founded as a legacy of the Get IT Together partnership project between Leeds City Council, British Telecom and Citizens Online which ran from 2012-2015, it today strives ‘to help individuals and organisations alike gain skills and confidence with technology and promote the beneficial opportunities that investment in people and tech can bring’.

“The people that had lived and worked with the digital inclusion partnership realised after its conclusion that the job of teaching digital skills in Leeds had only just started”, says founder Vic Berry. “Technology itself was in constant flux and everyone was at various points of the learning curve, struggling to keep up. We knew that the most disadvantaged needed to be able to access online services to be able to compete in the job market and generally keep up with an ever-changing world.”

 


Through the formation of city-wide local partnerships, GTT set up digital access points across several communities supported by both paid tutors and volunteers: “These are friendly, welcoming spaces where people can drop in and get casual, supported access to the internet as well as attend bespoke courses to address specific needs”, says Vic. One recent success was the result of helping an elderly lady learn how to get the most out of Google Maps; she went on to plan a complicated journey using public transport to independently visit her son in the south of the country. A previous alternative may have been to slowly and laboriously piece together a route, referring to a number of transport providers and juggling several sets of information. While this action becomes almost instantaneous with a tool as comprehensive and user-friendly as Google Maps, for the uninitiated it presents itself as a daunting step into the technological unknown.

Ironically, the benefits felt by those exposed to the initiative are not just restricted to recipients of training and skills acquisition. One past volunteer was a university lecturer in computer science who sought asylum from an oppressive regime overseas; she went on to secure a paid teaching job through the work experience gained by helping out at GTT. It should, therefore, be considered that investing collectively - from both a financial and social point of view - in raising our level of digital education on a national level presents life-changing opportunities for those actually imparting knowledge and training, not just the recipients of it.

Leeds Victoria Arcade

The organisation now has in excess of 200 registered students, some of whom have simply gained invaluable confidence and skills with their phone, tablet or computer and others who are now moving on to further training and indeed employment opportunities. GTT also plays a role in areas beyond just general proficiency; a lack of available money is often a factor in limited access to technology and subsequent digital exclusion, which Vic is always conscious of. “We’ve helped people, businesses and community groups develop an online presence and even assisted with computer networks and hardware refurbishment. Our lab project recycles donated technology and brings it back into use through local charity shop distribution.” With well-documented mountains of waste electronics a growing problem, making the most of devices that may not be the most up-to-date but still fully functioning could prove to be hugely important to widening the general digital access pool to those for whom money is indeed an inhibitor to simply getting online.

When the robots come...

If the pace of technological advancement continues unabated, the role of collectives promoting digital inclusion will become all the more crucial later down the line, especially with the growing power and influence of algorithms and automation. “We’re very interested in exploring the potential of artificial intelligence and how it will affect people on an individual level, and how automated technology integrates into our lives in future is a hot topic for discussion, especially the ethics of how it is used.”

The existence of localised communities of inhabitants with limited access to the internet or basic online know-how presents one problem to cities like Leeds, but when when artificial intelligence ingrains itself deeper into our daily lives there may be an even more profound risk that digital exclusion evolves into one which is even more of a problematic social barrier. As a result, this is something which people like Vic are keen to stay ahead of the curve on, and even play a role in shaping: “Our Lab project is already starting to develop ideas for new projects in this regard for the years to come, and generate interest in them across our students.”

Leeds Civic Hall

Perhaps in a future world the old lady who goes to visit her son benefits from her journey being automatically planned and booked by a personal digital assistant. It might add ingredients for her favourite dinner to her son’s shopping list to remind him when he’s next at the supermarket, as well as schedule a central heating boost from Friday to Sunday, just to make it that little bit more comfortable. Whether or not technology and AI will increasingly affect our daily lives at some point in the future is perhaps a moot point, but ensuring everyone can comfortably interact with the right devices, programmes and interfaces and enjoy its advantages is something we should look to avoid letting slip through the net.

What is profoundly clear to see is that while it’s a minority of individuals in specific areas of Leeds that directly benefit from digital inclusion initiatives, the whole city will ultimately benefit from a comprehensive long term programme seeking to give everyone the same opportunities - and that, intrinsically, includes those of us with the fortunate privilege of being able to exist in and around the digital space, both personally and professionally.

 

*Article originally produced for Leeds Digital Festival

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