When we entered lockdown last March, little did we know what we’d be facing over the next 12 months. While many have struggled, it has been heartening to see countless businesses ensure that those in need are supported.
One such area has been bridging the gap for millions of people who have no or little access to technology. For too long we’ve ignored the damaging impact of digital exclusion on the vulnerable in society. Sadly, it has taken a global pandemic to show what can happen when we don’t address the digital gap.
During the pandemic, digital exclusion has meant societal exclusion for many people. While we all relied on technology to maintain our businesses, access online education and stay connected with loved ones, large numbers have been unable to access this luxury.
According to Age UK, 51% of digitally excluded people are over the age of 65, while refugees and the homeless also face worrying levels of digital exclusion. According to homeless charity C4WS, 90% of those in shelter don’t have access to IT devices.
As a former child refugee, I know what a difference technology can make to someone’s life. When I was placed with my foster family in 1993, I soon received an old computer to support my education and transition into British society. I never looked back, and went on to learn English, get my A-levels and go on to study computing at university.
Support from businesses
When I started the laptops for the homeless initiative in 2016, I was starting from scratch. I had practically no contacts and it was down to hundreds of calls and dogged determination that I was able to gain some traction.
If it wasn’t for the engagement of large organisations at the beginning, such as BP, Aviva and Legal & General, we wouldn’t be here now. We needed them to believe in the scheme to start engaging others too. Since then, countless others have joined us, including the CBI themselves, whose recent donation enabled us to help homeless charity C4WS in London.
One of the main stumbling blocks for businesses to donate their old technology to the community has been the wiping of precious data from computers, laptops and phones. Anything we now collect is securely wiped and we provide each company with a data removal certificate. We then install open source software on all the laptops and computers.
Social distancing and other measures also pose challenges of course. We’ve had lots of collections during the pandemic though and some companies, such as Allianz, have allowed us to use their unused rooms to carry out the wiping of data.
Now is the time to take action
The digital divide in Britain has to be seen as a priority, now more than ever before. Fortunately, there are some simple actions businesses can take now in collaboration with organisations like SocialBox.Biz. We are not the only ones of course. The BBC campaign to support schoolchildren has resulted in thousands of donations while the charity London Grid for Learning managed to get 100,000 devices to schools in the first lockdown alone.
At the moment, we are collectively sitting on a large pile of unused technology. Not only that, but even before the pandemic a lot of companies and large institutions would simply sell their old technology for scrap, shipping it halfway round the world and adding to our carbon footprint. This is unsustainable.
In the longer term, one of the first steps a business can take is changing their procurement policy by donating IT locally to those in need. We estimate that a 3-7% shift in procurement policies towards local social impact can reduce digital exclusion by a third. This is also one of three main goals in our manifesto, which also includes eradicating digital poverty in the UK by the year 2030.
I’ll leave you with a heart-warming story. One of those who received a laptop is a 102-year-old lady who wanted to find a job and a husband on the internet. The point being, initiatives like this can give people an optimistic and hopeful outlook, something we can all probably relate to now.