While there is no doubt that the pandemic accelerated the uptake and enhancement of digital public services, it also compounded the existing digital divide in Northern Ireland.
High praise has been levelled at the ability of services to adapt to the realities of the pandemic and subsequent lockdowns, in expanding their digital services to citizens, consumers and businesses. However, it must also be recognised that as public and corporate services were forced to adapt to offer new services almost overnight, so to did individuals to access these services.
For many, the impromptu acceleration of digital services was a welcome development, with demand for access to public services online already outstripping availability, however, for others (the disengaged), the move represented a broadening of the existing digital divide.
The term disengaged can often be incorrectly interpreted as a matter of choice, for example, to characterise someone who chooses not to have a digital footprint. However, the reality is that the term disengaged often reflects people experiencing one or more of three main elements of digital exclusion: connectivity; digital skills; and affordability.
Evidence suggests that those being disenfranchised by the widening digital gap often include older people, rural dwellers and those living in poverty.
The significance of a digital disadvantage can be viewed in the context of an estimate that 90 per cent of new jobs now require digital skills, with 72 per cent of employers requiring basic digital skills as a mandatory requirement.
It is for this reason that the Department for the Economy has outlined plans to develop a specific Northern Ireland Digital Skills Action Plan within its overarching 10x Economy Strategy.
In Northern Ireland, 32 per cent of the working age population (16-65) have limited or no basic digital skills. That is higher than the UK average of 26 per cent. Similarly, Northern Ireland’s rate of over 14 per cent of the population as non-internet users is the highest in the UK. Addressing the digital divide becomes more complex when considering that many areas experience the digital divide differently, for example, in relation to connectivity and broadband speed access.
The World Economic Forum recently highlighted the widening digital gap as a result of the pandemic, stating: “Covid-19 has accelerated the Fourth Industrial Revolution, expanding the digitalisation of human interaction, e-commerce, online education and remote work. These shifts will transform society long after the pandemic and promise huge benefits, but they also risk exacerbating and creating inequalities…”
Existing large-scale projects currently in place in Northern Ireland such as Project Stratum and the Shared Rural Network (SRN) are mainly focused on addressing the infrastructural challenges in the form of broadband and mobile coverage.
Any forthcoming Budget will determine the levels of resource available to continue to tackle the digital divide in this regard, however, as evidenced, the digital gap in Northern Ireland extends further than infrastructure. The Budget represents an opportunity to align and properly resource an over arching plan that also addresses the issues of digital skills and technology affordability for those most in need.