Scotland Looks To Reduce Digital Exclusion
The Scottish Government is increasing its digital efforts, with public health and wellbeing set to benefit substantially.
Last week, Nicola Sturgeon gave a speech on Scotland’s new Programme for Government. Of course, she used this as a chance to put in her two pennies worth on the current Brexit situation, which has dominated the political agenda of late. Thankfully, the focus quickly shifted to Scotland’s ongoing progress in various sectors, one of which is digital and data, stating that the Government will:
“continue to deliver improved digital infrastructure to all parts of the country [through] an ambitious commitment to provide access to super-fast broadband for every home and business in Scotland.”
In light of the continuing digital exclusion highlighted by the recent Disconnected: Understanding Digital Inclusion and Improving Access report by Citizens Advice Scotland (CAS), this is music to my ears. After surveying 1,200 clients, CAS found that 34% had either no or limited access to the internet, 20% could only access it using a smartphone, and 21% don’t have an e-mail account. While these figures are hardly astronomical, they’re still too high when the aim is to give the entire Scottish population access to digital services. And even though a sample of 1,200 people may not be fully representative, it certainly underlines the need to improve the country’s digital infrastructure.
Despite the many barriers to digital inclusion, the one mentioned most often is lower income. A respondent to the CAS survey said:
“I have struggled to get online, which is difficult as the Jobcentre wants me to go on my Universal Credit account every day. This is especially bad as I’ve been really busy with finding a flat as I’m homeless, and the Jobcentre doesn’t get it.”
Poor connectivity in social housing is a particular challenge, even for those who have it — unlike the aforementioned respondent. Digital exclusion in this respect will likely be a challenge facing social housing providers for some time, and although the CAS report recommends that major public services continue to offer alternative options — like phone numbers and physical access points — until we eliminate the digital gap, real long-term change will only come from projects bringing digital access to social housing.
Just earlier in the week, I posted about this on my Twitter account. In a collaboration between the public and private sectors, Software company iOpt combined forces with the Centre of Excellence for Sensing and Imaging Systems (CENSIS) to install Internet of Things (IoT) technology in three residential tower blocks in Glasgow. This included fitting high-speed fibre-optic broadband in the buildings to improve connectivity, as well as monitors for temperature, humidity, CO2 levels, fire, and mould. It is innovative projects like this — using digital technology to tackle both internet access and issues like fuel poverty, antisocial behaviour, fire hazards, and so on — that will not only serve to increase the quality of living for social housing tenants but also ultimately help to close Scotland’s problematic digital gap.
The project even incorporates the provision of a community facility offering free digital inclusion classes. This takes into account another significant barrier to digital inclusion mentioned in the CAS report, which is a lack of training and support.
Such facilities — whether part of a bigger initiative or not — are crucial, and I’ve worked with many people over the years involved in them. One is Steven Roberts, who created the Digital Eagles for Barclays. The Digital Eagles are Barclays employees who use their knowledge of all things digital to help their colleagues become more confident with technology and to improve their digital skills, benefitting both those colleagues and customers. Their purpose is:
“empowering employees, customers, and local communities to be more confident with technology and to move forward in the digital world.”
The team also hold free Tea and Teach sessions across the UK, including Scotland, where anybody is welcome to come along for practical and helpful advice on their online issues.
The other big barrier to digital inclusion, especially in Scotland, is poor broadband connectivity in rural areas. However, this problem appears to be a real priority in Sturgeon’s new policy proposals for 2020 and beyond — and for good reason too. One of the greatest issues with digital exclusion in rural areas is a lack of access to digital health services, which has a detrimental impact on public health and patient outcomes. For that reason, the Government is set to implement a range of new digital measures aimed at improving public health and patient outcomes.
The first of these is the Attend Anywhere service, which is a:
“web-based platform that helps healthcare providers offer video call access to their services as part of their ‘business as usual,’ day-to-day operations.”
The programme has already been trialled in some Scottish localities, and positive results will lead to its roll-out across the country’s primary care and social services, so that a greater number of services are provided without users having to travel far — or anywhere at all.
An important part of the latest Programme for Government is a general commitment to trialling new programmes like Attend Anywhere. There will be a particular focus on the provision of services — including video consultations, tele-care and home health monitoring — to users who find it difficult to travel due to a physical or mental health condition — such as frail and/or breathless individuals, or the victims of domestic abuse.
Next year, the Government will also launch a new national public health body called Public Health Scotland. Designed to supplement efforts improving the health and well-being of the Scottish population, the body will increasingly use data and intelligence:
“to understanding and influence behavioural environment determinants of health and wellbeing, and to transform [its] systems to support healthy, independent living.”
One example is a data-led initiative aimed at dealing with childhood obesity, which will exist alongside further projects, including those relating to the enhanced provision of child services, better understanding the causes of poverty, and more.
I’m glad to see these much-needed digital changes in my home country, where the digital gap persists on the whole. Healthcare providers are finally catching up with other service industries in harnessing innovation and adopting new technologies to improve the service user experience. That said, ambition and reality are often poles apart. Let’s just hope the Scottish Government manages to minimise the divide between the noble intentions driving its digital policy and the outcomes it can realistically achieve in 2020 and beyond.