Breaking down the digital divide: two case studies
The digital divide crops up regularly as an issue of concern for public health. Below are details of two initiatives that are building some bridges across the divide:
• Infoxchange Australia is providing free social media training for public housing residents in Melbourne and argues in the article below that “any organisation working to improve the circumstances of disadvantaged communities really needs to consider digital inclusion is in the mix of approaches”.
• A research program using the iPad and a photo-sharing application helped to overcome social isolation amongst elderly people living at home. It is being conducted by the University of Melbourne’s Institute for a Broadband-Enabled Society, in collaboration with Benetas, a not-for-profit aged care service provider.
Digital access and literacy are essential in today’s world
Mark Egan writes:
It’s life 2.0. We wake up in the morning and check our Twitter feed, get home at night and respond to our facebook messages, instagramming our kids, cats and meals at all opportunities in between.
And it’s not just for fun; businesses and government agencies are scaling back ‘real world’ service delivery and pushing us to pay our bills, manage our accounts and access information online. Just this week, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy decried the imminent death of print news in the wake of the Fairfax job cuts, saying that within five years you’ll be reading your dailies strictly online.
Whether we like it or not, our lives are being played out ever-more on computers and handheld devices. Digital access and literacy aren’t just ‘nice to haves’ anymore, they are becoming a prerequisite of modern life. And if you can’t keep up with the technological pace, then too bad.
For many Australians though, they can’t keep up.
Computer and internet access is limited and digital literacy is poor amongst disadvantaged communities. Of the lowest income earners almost half don’t have internet at home, compared to 79% across the board. For these people this brave new online world is a foreign landscape, and not one their included in.
The irony is that the opportunities that new tools like social media afford are perhaps of most benefit to those who are least able to access it.
Being able to communicate freely with friends and family anywhere in the world using skype or facebook, accessing internet radio and other media in a native tongue, or participating in online discussions or virtual interest groups go a long way to easing the feeling of isolation experienced by many migrant, elderly and disadvantaged communities.
Infoxchange has just started a program to train people in Melbourne’s public housing estates how to use social media. The program is funded through the DPCD’s Community ICT Skills Grants and hopes to give people the skill and confidence to participate in the online world.
The program came about through our work with Wired Communities – a series of projects, backed by state and local governments and corporate partners, to provide computer and internet access to homes at public housing estates in Collingwood, Fitzroy and Box Hill.
This is part of Infoxchange’s mission to ensure equal and affordable access to information technology, and to use technology to solve social problems.
Infoxchange has been doing this kind of work for over 20 years. Some of our programs support the work of other community organisations, such as tailored software, or web and application development, while other programs, such as the social media training, are direct to the community.
The courses have just commenced and cover the very basics of social media and other free internet tools, aiming to show participants how they can use them to connect with others and access information. What we are finding, however, is that many people simply need assistance with the very basics of using the internet and computers. So while social media is the focus of these courses, much of it will involve getting people comfortable clicking around online.
What we have found from the Wired projects is that building digital proficiency amongst disadvantaged communities can bring a world of difference. From building IT skills (and hence employability), to enabling communication and connectivity, to saving people time via online transactions, to improving access to health, employment and other important information.
In fact, independent analysis of Wired @ Atherton Gardens measured the project’s economic value at close to $6million in its first 5 years.
Any organisation working to improve the circumstances of disadvantaged communities really needs to consider digital inclusion is in the mix of approaches.
Simple training such as showing people their left click from their right can have a real impact on people’s lives, making them more confident and capable of participating in modern society.
• Mark Egan is Digital Media and Communications Officer for Infoxchange Australia and will report back to Croakey readers later in the year about what they learn from running the course. On Twitter: @Infoxchange
Connecting the elderly
A small study of elderly people living at home found they felt more socially connected after learning to use an iPad and a photograph-sharing application as part of a research project.
The study was conducted by researchers from the University of Melbourne’s Institute for a Broadband-Enabled Society, in collaboration with Benetas, a leading not-for-profit aged care service provider.
The team built an iPad application that allows participants to create and share photographs and messages with each other, and provided seven older people (mostly in their 80s and 90s) and two of their care managers with iPads, and a new iPad application (‘Enmesh’ – Engagement through Media Sharing), which was purpose-built for this study.
All were living in their own home, had significant health and/or mobility problems, but were identified by their care managers as having the physical and cognitive capacity to participate in the study.
By creating and sharing content over the ten weeks of the study, the participants were able to build social connections in order to help alleviate their experience of social isolation.
One participant said:
“The study has been very successful with me. I had a very bad time of depression [...] It has made a lot of difference. Not the actual act of taking pictures, but the act of being able to communicate with others who are doing the same thing.”
Taking part in the trial also gave participants something to focus on and this appeared to have a positive effect on their well-being. One participant said:
“I forgot about myself while I was doing this. You forget about yourself and your aches and pains.”
The three face-to-face meetings that were held during the study were considered to be particularly valuable for helping participants to build rapport and get to know each other. The meetings also had a positive effect on how participants interacted using the photo-sharing application. As one participant said:
“I think that was quite good [to meet the other people]. It became a person where otherwise it was only a face.”
The photo-sharing activity with Enmesh provided an opportunity for participants to share details about their daily lives and surroundings with other people. This enabled others to view a “window” into their world. Through this window, participants were able to build rapport and find common interests.
It also meant that the care managers who took part were able to get to know their clients better and gain some insight into their everyday lives.
Participants also faced challenges in taking part in the activity and, in some cases, participation waned over time. They also had a number of usability problems with the iPad, and some participants misunderstood how the technology worked and were worried about making mistakes (for example, one participant thought she might endanger air traffic when she accidentally set the iPad on ‘airplane’ mode).
The researchers concluded:
It is important to recognise that while technologies offer particular opportunities to extend older people’s social networks, social isolation cannot be alleviated by technology alone. This trial involved the development and evaluation of a socio-technical system. That is, the social context in which the technology was used was engineered to ensure Enmesh could be used as a tool for alleviating social isolation. One of the key lessons from this project was that participants felt it was important they had the opportunity to meet face-to-face in order to successfully build and maintain a social network. Furthermore, the two care managers played an active role in encouraging participant interactions. Their involvement was crucial to the success of the project.
I guess this study shows that at least some of those now on the wrong side of the digital divide have the personal capacity, given the appropriate support, to bridge it. Whether aged care and community services are willing and able to provide this enabling support more widely is another matter, however.