By Tom Ahern
At the Centre for Social Justice, we take life experiences and learnings from UK charities to inform our policy work. Over the course of two days, we worked with local authorities and charities to convene four focus groups with people experiencing digital exclusion. The focus groups were hosted in Leeds, Rochdale, Buxton and Loughborough to discuss digital exclusion and as a born and bred Londoner, it’s always a joy to escape the big smoke and be surrounded by green fields.
We met with a small group brought together by local charity Gipsil to discuss the important issue of digital exclusion. Gipsil is a brilliant charity which works with children, young people, and families in the most disadvantaged communities in Leeds. The discussion flowed as people shared the challenges they experience as the cost of living drives up prices and makes getting online increasingly expensive. Also, one attendee aptly noted the challenges of only having a phone and the difficulties that come with not having access to a computer or internet at home.
After our first thought-provoking roundtable, the journey continued on to Rochdale and the second focus group of the day. We spoke candidly with a wonderful group of people all of whom were experiencing digital exclusion in one form or another. This particular group was linked by their attendance at a local digital skills group that meets in a public library. The discussion took many forms, and the attendants were effusive in their praise of the digital skills classes they were attending. It was clear to see that, thanks to the classes, each person was markedly more confident when using technology. On arrival, one attendant brandished a printout of the first digital CV they had made thanks to the classes. This person spoke of how they had learnt how to search for employment online and complete online job applications. It was an empowering moment to witness as they revelled in a new world of work opportunities, they now have access to.
Following a brief train journey the next morning, we arrived in Buxton, a town located in the Peak District. We visited Zink community hub, one of those wonderful charities that do so much for the local community – they offer job support, a food bank, employment training, different advice and support services, a host of activities, delicious food from their café and so much more. The good people at Zink brought together a collection of their service users who struggle with digital exclusion. During the focus group, we discussed the challenges of living in a rural area as patchy broadband and poor signal made the struggles of being online that much harder. Furthermore, the group openly shared their challenges in using the internet. One challenge raised was that attendees preferred to interact with a person but felt they were being forced online and asked by businesses to undertake digital tasks they were not able to complete, whether that be online banking or paying for parking.
Afterward, we proceeded to Loughborough in order to pay a visit to the Loughborough Wellbeing Centre. The centre runs activities and groups to support people’s mental health. During our time at Loughborough Wellbeing Centre we spoke to a range of individuals all of whom were experiencing different levels of digital exclusion. Several of the focus group members raised their fear of scammers and their identity being stolen. The lack of digital skills within the group meant they were intimidated by completing any tasks online that involved sharing their bank or personal details. The fear of scams was prevalent throughout the four focus groups despite none of the attendees having been scammed but the online scam stories circulated through the media or from friends and families dented the confidence of attendees from using the internet in ways they were unfamiliar with. Hosting four focus groups in four different locations was a whirlwind experience, but the conversations were invaluable. The discussions mentioned above are a preview of the findings from the focus groups which will influence the work we are conducting on the impact of digital exclusion, and we look forward to sharing more of those findings in an upcoming report.