Panel 5: Digital Equity Wednesday 6 July 2022
By Kyle Kane
“The jobs of the future, the skills of the future, the education of the future are all linked to digital technologies,” said Sylvia Poll, Head of the Digital Society division in the Telecommunication Development Bureau of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU). “If young people do not have the skills to take these jobs, they will not be able to take advantage of the opportunities that will come in front of them”.
Many people’s view of the digital world is that people need equal access to programs that will teach them how to use the internet and what they can do with this new tool. However, as Daren Gilan put it, “It’s not only about having shoes but shoes that fit”. Each community’s needs are very different from one another. Moreover, equality does not always mean equitable. Sylvia pointed out that one-third of the world remains offline, and the many who are, remain digitally illiterate.
The world’s entrance into the digital age has been quick and largely unexpected. When the internet first came into existence, many considered it to be just another fad that would come and go. Nevertheless, today, when we view the internet, it is easy to see how important and intertwined it is in many people’s everyday life. The world has moved online, but many are stuck without the proper resources to learn and access what many people can do daily.
Countries are falling behind in creating a level of digital equity in this new digital age, the panellists said. Countries lacking programs to support elderly and low-income people will continue to see the “digital gap” grow. Because so many large companies in these nations have moved many of their essential services online, those without access to digital knowledge will only continue to fall behind and miss out on opportunities such as job listings or finance management. Globally, 12 per cent fewer women than men are connected to the internet, with most of these women living in “developing countries,” panellists said.
Similarly, the elderly, persons with disabilities, those from ethnic and linguistic minorities, indigenous groups, and residents of poor or remote areas are most likely to be cut off from the benefits of this new era. Without a holistic approach to expanding high-speed internet access, the digital gap will approach becoming a “canyon.” During the Covid pandemic, for example, we saw a rapid shift of programs moving from the classroom to the digital workspace. Many in the middle and upper classes had few problems adapting to this shift, as many already owned the necessary tools to ease this transition. In districts with higher income level students, many already had school-issued devices and internet access at home, allowing them to make an effortless pivot from in-school learning to online. However, this transition was much more complex for low-income families, with many low-income school districts being unable to afford school-issued devices and families not being able to afford high-speed internet. It took time until they could adequately equip students with the necessary computers and Wi-Fi hotspots, but by then, many students had already dropped out for the remainder of the year.
Digital inclusion is one of the essential steps to a digitally equitable world. It is a policy-driven approach that focuses on the needs of individuals and communities. Not only does it encompass access to the internet but also to the necessary tools for effective use of technology. Digital inclusion as a blueprint addresses, guides, and readies communities to embrace the digital age fully.
The YMCA has recognised the issue of digital equity and has been a strong proponent of increasing access to the internet and digital literacy programs across the globe. E Timotheus Kamaboakai, the CEO of YMCA Libera, has been leading a movement that focuses on information and communications technology training and job creation for young people. In this area, the YMCA has been running a computer literacy program for young people for 18 years. Since then, the program has been scaled up three times and expanded to 5 centres outside the capital, Monrovia.
“The YMCA is the only organisation that is local and global at the same time,” said Peter Nasir, the panel moderator. “All the other organisations are very global, and they present global ideas. The YMCA acts from the bottom up. In Palestine it’s in the Palestinian context; in Scotland, it’s in a Scottish context. We all identify what our community needs, and from there we have a big family that we can lean on.”
The YMCA focuses on digital equity but does not provide one solution to apply globally; however, by working within communities to understand what each needs to offer a better-formed plan and idea, these local citizens may thrive in our new digital age.