Imagine your past year without the internet: my reflections on the pandemic one year on

The past year has been horrible. It’s been depressing and it’s been frustrating. But amongst all the misery, I’ve also found moments of excitement and pride.

It has been unfathomably horrible that so many people have lost their lives – and that so many families are still being deeply affected by this virus. It’s been depressing as often I’ve felt powerless in the face of a global pandemic – and I can’t say the weekends spent staring at deflating data on Twitter have helped to ease these feelings. And it’s been frustrating – not being able to travel or to see my family.

But it’s the periods of excitement that have kept me going. The new challenges and engaging with new partners about the importance of digital inclusion. And there have been plenty of times where I’ve felt immensely proud: proud of the incredible people in the hyperlocal network we partner with; proud of our national partners and the people who have donated to our Crowdfunder; and proud of the team at Good Things Foundation who have stepped up and work so hard this year to achieve so much.

I talk to a lot of people and one question I’m often asked: what’s changed in the last year?

Everything and nothing.

Imagine your year without being able to use the internet. That’s what so many families have had to put up with. Since we went into the first lockdown, interest in digital inclusion has skyrocketed.There have been amazing efforts across the country to ensure that all children can continue to learn from home. But there’s also been great interest in digital inclusion to tackle loneliness, or to improve health outcomes and access essential public services, or to allow people to work from home effectively. And I no longer see blank faces when I talk about ‘digital inclusion.’

There have been three big pivots for us this past year. First, our network of hyperlocal community partners went through dramatic changes with face-to-face support effectively stopped – doors shut – a year ago. We supported our local partners with resources as they pivoted to remote support online and via phone and, after the first lockdown, as they went from small groups and drop-ins to more one-to-one appointments. We have learned a lot from our partners too over the past year.

Second, we quickly realised that people needed devices and data. This was somewhat invisible to us before Covid, but by the end of March it was clear that this was an acute need. We put devices and data into our emergency response with FutureDotNow’s DevicesDotNow campaign, and have now embedded it into our work going forward as Everyone Connected. And we’ve since launched programmes focusing specifically on families and people with learning disabilities. Very soon we will have reached 20,000 people and families who before didn’t have devices and access to the internet, with affordability a huge reason that many of them were offline.

And of course, like every other “knowledge” organisation, we’re now working from home 100% of the time. This has been a struggle for many people. I consider myself lucky as I have a spare dining room, live with two other people, and have a garden. But I know for younger staff just starting out in their careers not being able to see how others work and not overhear conversations from colleagues will affect their learning and development. A real bonus is that senior people from politics, charities and businesses are more accessible – it’s much easier to find time for a 30 minute video meeting – I think we’ve all found the endless video calls tiring some of the time.

What’s kept me going throughout is the stories from our centres – our hyperlocal community partners – about all the amazing people who have benefitted from our support. Just today, a woman in her 80s read about our work in Yours magazine and phoned us to say the story resonated with her. Like so many other people, she’s alone and isolated with no family. Our team has put her in touch with a local centre and they’ve introduced her to a befriending volunteer. 

And of course, how can I reflect on the past year without mentioning Mable? She was the video star of the first lockdown and her story touched so many hearts. Mable is a clear example of a how tablet with data – alongside a digital mentor volunteer providing support – can change someone’s life. 

As I look forward, throughout the rest of the pandemic and beyond, I see many challenges – but also countless opportunities. 

One thing that we must always remember is that Covid-19 didn’t invent digital exclusion. It existed before and it will exist afterwards. But now that more people are aware of how critical it is I feel, even more than before, that we can close the digital divide if we set our minds to it. And now there are many more minds thinking about this.

No-one should have to choose between food and data – it’s heartbreaking that so many have faced that choice. Data poverty and the lack of affordable devices is something we can fix. We’re focused on data poverty and are moving from emergency solutions – like DevicesDotNow – to exploring sustainable solutions through the Data Poverty Lab we’re setting up with Nominet. Together, we can end data poverty. Our goal is that together we can make the internet affordable for people on low incomes, and free for those on very low incomes. 

Finally, I see great opportunities to ramp up our work with businesses and with the Government. Businesses have had a very mixed experience over the past year, with many struggling to survive, but other industries have seen their revenue soar. This brings in new businesses for us to partner with and means we’ll be able to support many more people.

With the Government, we’ve been campaigning to Fix the Digital Divide – and I think we’ve been heard. MPs from across the political spectrum have backed our calls to invest in digital skills through a great digital catch up. (One example was a House of Commons debate on 3rd December.) I’d like to work in partnership with the Government to embed digital inclusion across all Departments. With the Government’s leadership we can set an ambition – let’s be bold and really fix the digital divide. Together, across sectors, we can create a national, coherent plan to completely close the divide by the end of the decade. 

So everything has changed and nothing has changed. There is still debilitating digital exclusion in this country and data poverty – holding people and the economy back. People up and down the country will be suffering grief and sadness, worry and fear, due to losing loved ones and losing jobs and livelihoods. Digital inclusion isn’t the silver bullet that brings a solution to all our challenges but we know that having skills and access to feel digitally equal does improve lives and boost the economy.

But, we know how to fix the digital divide, with affordable devices and access, with nationally coordinated and targeted, informal, community support, and, working with employers with low skilled workers.

Now there is a good understanding that having a deep digital divide in our country is not OK – it’s time to scale up the action to fix it. Once and for all. 

To build back better: Why we must act now to tackle digital and financial exclusion

This piece was written by Kelly Devine, Mastercard UK and Ireland President, and Helen Milner OBE.

The Covid-19 pandemic is having a devastating impact on millions of people’s finances. In fact, a staggering 19.4 million people do not feel prepared for the economic fallout that looms before us.1 With unemployment rising, and physical banking and consumer services less accessible due to the restrictions, it’s more important than ever that everyone is able to get online to access essential financial services and money support. 

When – according to Lloyds Bank’s Consumer Digital Index – 9 million people cannot use the internet without help, and 11.7 million people lack the essential digital skills for everyday life – the risks to people’s livelihoods and to national goals of levelling up are all too stark. We must do whatever it takes to stop this double inequality of both digital and financial exclusion, acting now to fix the digital divide before the gap widens further, if we are to build a truly inclusive Britain.

That’s why Good Things Foundation, the UK’s leading digital inclusion charity, and Mastercard – along with Clean Slate, Joseph Rowntree Foundation, and the APLE Collective – formed an emergency coalition in June last year to raise awareness and pilot new ways to support those facing both digital and financial barriers. Last year’s campaign to ensure we leave Nobody in the Dark about the support they can get around money and digital skills reached over 1 million people.

The rise of ‘fintech’ and use of digital technology has brought untold benefits to economic growth, but these benefits have not been shared by everyone. Harnessing digital technology and innovation is the key to tackling digital and financial exclusion, and building a better, more inclusive UK.

But this promise won’t be realised without some essential groundwork: building the trust of consumers and citizens in online financial services and tools; ensuring those services and tools are inclusive by design, as well as safe and secure; providing additional protections for consumers who may be vulnerable or in vulnerable situations – and recognising that digital access and skills are an important dimension of consumer vulnerability in a digital marketplace. And, above all, we need to invest sustained effort into reaching, engaging and supporting those most at risk of digital and financial exclusion, so they can develop the skills and confidence to use online financial services safely.

As part of Nobody in the Dark, we also piloted a new approach: embedding digital inclusion into provision of person-centred money guidance. We combined the financial inclusion expertise of Clean Slate – which also runs QuidsIn! (the magazine and website) – with the digital inclusion expertise of Good Things Foundation to create a new service offer. We partnered with eight community organisations – members of the Online Centres Network, supported by Good Things Foundation. Through this pilot, we supported over 540 people to improve their financial situation and also build their digital and financial confidence. Over 255 people also benefited through a ‘self-serve’ route linked to the national campaign. 

And we’re proud that Nobody in the Dark has enabled people to make positive changes in their behaviour, big and small, through building trust, and building personal confidence. 

Take Mum of 3 Lydia, in Newcastle, who, after completing a financial health check, started putting aside £1 a day, and encouraged her children to save pennies from their pocket money in a piggybank. Together, they learned a way to become better off; by harnessing digital skills, taking control of their situation and boosting confidence and wellbeing for the whole family.

There are hundreds of thousands of people who are wary of using digital financial services, put off by the possibility of online fraud and scams; many are already online in other ways. These are sound concerns and we should never force people to adopt digital. But this doesn’t detract from the critical tasks of finding sustainable solutions for cash access, alongside helping people to develop the trust, digital skills, access or confidence to use both cash and digital payments. This is something we must address, or we risk these consumers being left further behind as how we pay for goods and services continues to evolve.

That’s why one of the core themes of our campaign has been to build trust and confidence in digital finance. 

At our recent roundtable, attended by the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, John Glen MP, participants highlighted how a lack of trust and confidence in using digital services stops people from getting online. This is a serious issue which must be a core focus within Government plans for financial inclusion going forward. More than this, it is a fundamental barrier to accessing the wider benefits of being online – like keeping in touch with friends and family, managing health appointments and prescriptions, or being able to easily plan and manage your own finances. That’s why Good Things Foundation and Mastercard have been calling on the Government to support a Great Digital Catch-up in communities to fix the digital divide.

Investing to fix the digital divide – which the Government have also recently recognised in their ten tech priorities – also offers potential solutions for some who are currently ‘unbanked’ to help them build more sustainable finances. For example, through recent innovations in use of pre-paid cards and open banking solutions, which don’t require a traditional bank account. If these are to play a role in reducing inequalities and financial exclusion, then they need to be inclusive by design – designed to be used by people who face additional barriers to accessing traditional services.

We believe our Nobody in the Dark coalition provides a fantastic blueprint for future collaborations, connecting Government, the financial industry, third sector, and local communities. Together, Mastercard, Good Things Foundation and Clean Slate are committed to developing this agenda for action, to help tackle digital and financial exclusion and to ensure an inclusive economic recovery that works for everyone.

  1. YouGov Plc. Total sample size was 2,054 adults. Fieldwork was undertaken between 24th – 25th June 2020. The survey was carried out online. The figures have been weighted and are representative of all UK adults (aged 18+).