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February 5, 2021updated 02 Mar 2021 11:09am

How CIOs are fighting digital poverty

The pandemic has laid bare the deep digital gap in the UK. Tech executives are taking action.

By Cristina Lago

The Covid-19 outbreak and subsequent national lockdowns have highlighted an issue that in pre-pandemic times rarely made headlines: that millions of people in the UK live in digital poverty.

Tech Monitor reported this week how economic inequalities arising from data poverty will only become more pronounced when some businesses decide to operate exclusively using online channels. Students in low-income households have been severely affected by the ‘digital gap’ since schools and universities closed their doors. For those students lacking equipment or using an inadequate broadband connection, this means their education has effectively been interrupted.

The digital divide is a reflection of the socioeconomic schism: while 97% of privately educated schoolchildren have access to a computer at home, one in five of those on free school meals did not, a UCL study found.

Tech Monitor spoke to six CIOs in the private and non-profit sectors who have taken part in initiatives to provide equipment and digital skills support to school children and other vulnerable people in the UK.

Time for action

When he found out about the difficulties accessing digital education that so many students in the UK are experiencing, Freddie Quek, chief technology officer at Times Higher Education, decided to do something about it.

“Last October I was made aware of the issue of digital exclusion; the day-to-day reality for families living a life without any digital connection – no phones, no apps, no social media, no internet – which many of us have taken for granted,” says Quek.

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The UK government has been criticised for lack of action to provide on-time access to digital services, including equipment and internet, to school children who do not have it.

“These children are effectively being left behind because of their lack of access to appropriate computer equipment,” Quek says. “The longer Covid-19 stays, the wider the digital gap will get.”

Quek found that many of his tech leadership peers wanted to help, and he soon discovered more than 40 tech executives and over 60 responses from organisations that were taking practical steps to close the digital gap.

Quek’s efforts on LinkedIn – networking and putting vendors and CIOs in touch – has helped materialise many goodwill intentions into actual initiatives. He believes that by promoting the work of these CIOs, others will follow and a coordinated approach to the problem will come from it.

What CIOs are doing to bridge the digital gap

Lisa Hawker, director of IT and systems at Ark, a multi-academy trust, has been busy providing remote learning support pupils who need it most. According to the trust, which has 38 schools and almost 29,000 students across the UK, a high proportion of its students live in an economically disadvantaged household. Some 33% of Ark schools’ students receive free school meals, compared to a national average of 17.3%.

A parent survey undertaken across the trust’s schools during the first lockdown found that just 48% of Ark’s students had a suitable device for home learning.

Hawker was behind the IT strategy that allowed a transition to remote learning in 2020 through cloud-based solutions. She also led the IT service team delivering more than 12,000 Chromebooks, including safeguarding monitoring and internet filtering software, to those students unable to access remote learning.

The Royal British Legion, a charity providing financial and social support to army veterans and their families, has also joined the call for help. Chief information officer Stuart McSkimming says that during the past few weeks they have donated 40 old laptops to Computer Aid, a charity working to bridge the digital divide in low-income countries. The recycled laptops will go to users in the UK and beyond.

McSkimming adds that the British Legion is also working with Community Calling to provide mobile handsets to those without one in the UK. In addition, his team has partnered with Tier 1, a company which recycles IT equipment for a prison recycling initiative that helps unemployed ex-offenders, many of whom are ex-service people, to access training and job opportunities.

“There is a little bit more work involved in finding good uses for equipment once we have no further use for it, but in most cases, we find that the benefits contribute to the overall aims we are trying to achieve as an organisation – help serving personnel, veterans and their families in times of need,” says McSkimming

“Obviously combatting digital poverty is a key part of that, as it affects many of our beneficiaries and their families.”

Another non-profit organisation that has chipped in with equipment is blood cancer charity Anthony Nolan, which recently donated a mix of 40 Chromebooks and MacBooks to families dependent on food banks or school meals.

However, distributing the devices around the country was not an easy task. Anthony Nolan’s team is small and have limited resources, explains Danny Attias, chief digital and information officer at the charity.

“So actually, it required our receptionist and one of our service desk staff to put in a lot of extra time just identifying where all the devices are, contacting all the individuals, arranging packaging and couriers, getting them back, wiping all the details. So something as simple as giving a laptop, actually is a large amount of work.”

Private-sector CIOs have also answered the call for help. At Lloyds Banking Group, John Chambers, group CIO, and Juan Gómez-Reino Garrido, CTO, are involved in various initiatives launched by the finance organisation to help families with remote learning.

One of these initiatives is supporting Mail Force with donations and IT devices, a charity set-up during the first UK lockdown to provide essential equipment to key workers and support online education. The bank has also set-up a ‘Lloyds Bank Academy’, which helps people, charities and business owners to improve digital skills by providing a range of virtual training and learning resources.

Supplier support

But one of the most celebrated examples has come from Asda, which recently announced a partnership with Dell to provide 7,000 laptops to UK schools.

Anna Barsby, interim chief digital and technology officer at Asda says these sorts of initiatives are a good opportunity for IT executives and companies to look at all areas across their business and assess how they can support the corporate responsibility agenda.

“We already have a good working relationship with Dell, but it’s looking for those opportunities within your business to harness supplier relationships to make a bigger impact,” says Barsby.

Each of the schools receiving these laptops, which have Microsoft software pre-installed, will manage the distribution to prioritise pupils directly. Schools are selected by ‘Community Champions’ in each Asda store, who can nominate a local primary or secondary school to receive a donation of ten new Dell laptops and technology bundles.

“Their nominations are then reviewed by our head office Better Communities team using government benchmarking data, so we ensure that the laptops are going to schools that need them the most,” says Barsby.

Long term, sustainable solutions

Although these initiatives have helped thousands of students across the UK, the likes of digital literacy and access to adequate resources are linked to economic development and social opportunities. Unless there is strong investment in infrastructure, equal access to services and widespread skills learning, the problem is likely to remain unsolved, even when lockdowns are lifted and students return to schools.

Quek, who has been helping facilitate this equipment donation ‘movement’ by networking with CIOs and providers, has learned three important lessons so far.

Firstly, that coordinating these efforts is not an easy task; secondly, that this approach is not scalable or sustainable; and thirdly, CIOs and organisations need to find a more holistic way to address the problem.

Initiatives like the ones above are making a big difference to students and their families but Quek says there is a need for coordination. Although he suggests that CIOs who have already started an initiative should continue with it, he asks his peers to avoid duplication. Instead, he encourages IT leaders to socialise and mobilise as part of a common project. This could be done through their social networks, such as LinkedIn, where many of these projects have already been shared. Creating a common database and a centralised system could help avoid repetition of tasks and learn from previous mistakes.

“Make everyone aware of what is out there and who is doing something already,” Quek says. “And mobilise: help tech leaders and communities to see the current landscape so that as individuals, their organisations or communities know how to contribute.”

If you are a tech leader who would like to help school children access IT equipment and digital skills but do not know where to start, you can contact Freddie Quek on LinkedIn. Also get in touch if you have already created an initiative like the ones above and want to help others in the network.

Home page photo by Juliya Shangarey/Shutterstock.

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