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. 

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

  1. Pingback: Imagine your past year without the internet: my reflections on the pandemic one year on – Helen Milner | Public Sector Blogs

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