Celebrate small! Looking at digital inclusion from the ground up

(Opening remarks for the Inside Government Digital Skills and Inclusion Conference 2021)

Delivered on 13 January 2021

Digital Skills and Inclusion Conference 2021 promotional image.

Hello, and welcome to the Digital Skills and Inclusion Conference!

I have two tasks ahead of me for this brief opening address. I’m going to give you some information about the conference we have planned today and also introduce myself and my research. I’ll start with the latter.

I’m Kira Allmann. I’m a postdoctoral research fellow in media law and policy at the University of Oxford, and I’ll be chairing our conference today.

I’m excited to be here because in my day job, I study how local, grassroots organizations and communities are bridging the digital divide in innovative ways.

For instance, over the last couple of years, I’ve worked with rural communities in Lancashire and Yorkshire that are building their own internet network, which is called Broadband for the Rural North. If you haven’t heard of them before, look them up. They’re really cool.

And I’ve worked with volunteers at public libraries who are helping people with limited digital skills access basic government services.

Based on this work, I think that small, local, human-centered interventions are too often overlooked as an answer to the big question of digital inclusion. Which is why I’m so glad to see so many local community initiatives and councils represented among the speakers and delegates here today.

I’d like to take this opportunity to illustrate what I mean by drawing from one of my ongoing research projects. I lead the Oxfordshire Digital Inclusion Project, together with my co-investigator Dr Grant Blank from the Oxford Internet Institute and research assistant Annique Wong.

The Oxfordshire Digital Inclusion Project is knowledge-exchange collaboration. We at the University brought our research methods together with the wonderful on-the-ground, front-line digital assistance work happening at the Oxfordshire County Council Libraries. Together, we wanted to better understand what digital exclusion looks like from the ground up and to develop better digital inclusion strategies as a result.

For several years now, the Oxfordshire County Council libraries have provided ad hoc digital help to customers through a volunteer scheme called Digital Helpers. Digital Helpers were the libraries’ response to an increased demand from library customers for digital assistance in recent years. More and more council services were being digitized, and national government services were going online, too.

I became a Digital Helper two years ago, and I saw first-hand what the digital divide looks like from the perspective of library customers lacking meaningful digital access and skills. I work on digital exclusion in an academic capacity, but I felt there was a striking disconnect between how we theorize digital exclusion and how it actually is — on the ground.

Amazingly, very little research work on digital exclusion — and digital skills in particular — looks at the lived experience of digitally excluded people. So as an anthropologist, I felt there was a gap here that needed to be filled. How do we assess the best and worst practices if we don’t go into the field, and see how those practices are playing out in real life?

So that is what we set out to do with the Oxfordshire Digital Inclusion Project. We collected a mix of data, including surveys, semi-structured interviews, and — crucially — participant observation of people seeking digital help at the Oxfordshire County Library.

Some of what we learned from this research will soon be published in an academic article in the Journal of Information, Communication, and Society, which I co-authored with Dr Grant Blank. And we will also be releasing a report online on our website in the very near future (stay tuned!).

In a nutshell, what we found was that our general understanding of digital skills frameworks needs updating.

I’d argue that’s because we are living through a new phase of the digital age — what we might call the “era of compulsory computing.”

Going online is no longer optional. Thanks to widespread digitization of private and government services, including things like Universal Credit, many non-users are effectively forced online to complete specific tasks. This digital world that non-users encounter is complicated, and it requires lots of difficult skills all at once.

Let me describe what I mean by introducing you to Margaret (not her real name), a woman who came into the Oxfordshire County Library for digital help one day. I’ve written about Margaret as a case study in the forthcoming journal article I mentioned just a moment ago.

Margaret was a quiet and somewhat anxious-looking woman in roughly her sixties who booked a digital helper session. She told me — I was the digital helper — that she needed help searching the council housing list online.

She showed me a letter she received from the local council explaining that from now on all housing searches and applications had to be made online.

Immediately, it was obvious that Margaret was not comfortable with computers. When we sat down together at a library computer, she took out a slip of paper with her login details on it and asked me to enter them for her. She gestured toward the mouse and said, “I can never use that thing.”

And she couldn’t. I tried to let her do most of the clicking, but she struggled to use the mouse to position the cursor in the box to enter her library card number. After several minutes of Margaret painstakingly entering the digits of her card number into the box, we finally logged in, and I opened a browser window for her.

I followed the URL on the letter she had with her, and we opened the housing page. It was clear she needed to set up an account.

To set up an account, she needed an email address.

But she had never used e-mail.

So, now we needed to first set her up with an email account.

Margaret wanted to use Gmail because she had heard of it before. So, we started the process of setting up a Gmail account.

The first major issue was that Margaret didn’t know how to capitalize letters on the keyboard, and you need to use capital letters and symbols to create a secure enough password that Gmail will accept it.

I showed her how to hold down the shift key and press a letter. Frankly, I have to be honest, the likelihood that Margaret would remember how to capitalize the letters in her own password later on was slim. But eventually we set a password and moved on.

Now, to validate her email account, Margaret needed to confirm her identity using two-factor authentication. Two-factor authentication required that Margaret received an authorization code via text message on a mobile phone.

Like about 8% of the British population, Margaret did not have a mobile phone.

So, we were back at square one. And it was up to me, the digital helper, to try to find an alternative email provider that would not require a mobile phone number. I can tell you from experience that finding such a provider is getting harder and harder these days, and ultimately on this occassion, we were unsuccessful.

By then, Margaret’s help session time was up. And we hadn’t even gotten close to getting her onto the housing list.

If this sounds tedious or just downright boring, that’s because it probably would be to most of us.

We’re here on this fancy online conference platform, watching a live-streamed talk. Those of us here are more-or-less digitally fluent.

The question, I think, when it comes to digital inclusion, is how can we put ourselves in a place where we think and feel a little bit more like Margaret?

What would we want the digital world to look like then?

Up until now, digital skills theory and digital skills in practice have been mostly disconnected.

For example, academic work on digital skills has mostly examined skills through surveys, where people self-report their level of confidence or competence in certain skills, or through laboratory-based testing of skills, where people perform tasks in a controlled environment.

And today’s skills frameworks in the policy realm tend to treat skills the way we used to understand computing — as discrete, isolated competencies that can build on one another.

Keyboarding before word processing. Word processing before online forms.

But what we observed in the Oxfordshire libraries is that skills are not encountered or needed in this way in the era of compulsory computing.

And we got to that conclusion by looking at people and their digital skills in real life contexts, where they are trying to get online at the library to complete real tasks.

Today, even setting up a simple account to search council housing requires many related and complicated skills, from using a keyboard and mouse to setting up and maintaining an email account, where someone like Margaret can receive updates on her housing bids later on.

But the most important skill of all is something we on the project team have come to call “path abstraction.”

Ok, stick with me here. By “path abstraction,” we mean that computer users today need to assemble the skills they need to complete a simple goal in the abstract, in their heads, and in digital terms in order to successfully reach their desired outcome. This kind of abstract thinking is crucial to teaching, learning, and applying digital skills today.

The chain of steps Margaret needed to take in this case required various different skills that digitally literate users may intuitively know follow, one after the other. You first need an email account to set up other online accounts, for instance. And your email account is not the same as your housing account, but they are linked.

This kind of abstract thinking — imagining the digital path you need to follow — presents an almost insurmountable challenge to someone who is not fluent in the digital world.

The headline takeaway here is that we need digital skills frameworks that account for the complicated reality non-users face when they want to get online for the first time.

We need to recognize that many non-users are actually goal-oriented users, meaning they will go online to complete specific tasks but might not want to do much else online, at least not initially.

And we need to design platforms targeted at marginalized people better — by minimizing the number of digital skills necessary to easily and safely get online for those goal-oriented tasks. The more path abstraction that an end-goal requires, the less likely a digitally marginalized person will be able to achieve it alone, without help.

The impediments to Margaret being able to access a basic government service — which she has a right to access — were both her lack of digital skills and a platform design that assumed a remarkably high level of digital fluency when you look at it from Margaret’s perspective.

And that is a lesson that only field work in the real world can teach us.

I expect we will be hearing many insights and stories from the field — your field work — today. And I look forward to hearing about how we are all tackling the big issue of digital inclusion in our small corners of the world.

What we need to do now is find a way to collate best practices and share knowledge. It’s clear that when it comes to digital inclusion, the next big thing is likely to be a lot of small things — and we can do more to support “small” and worry a little less about “scale.”

Ultimately, as those of us to research and work on the front lines of digital inclusion know, digital inclusion isn’t about technology. It’s about human beings. So it makes sense that we need to overcome the digital divide on an interpersonal, local level that puts people and their needs front and center.

(For updates on the release of the Oxfordshire Digital Inclusion Project, our forthcoming journal article, report, and more, please sign up for my newsletter.)

Postdoctoral Research Fellow in Media Law & Policy, University of Oxford; I work on community-owned internet networks and digital inequality.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store