Digital Expertise and Inclusion

Friday, 29 March 2019

Inclusion as a topic covers a broad church from gender and sexual identity, to culture, to religion, to language, to remoteness, to age, to living with difference in abilities. Inclusion is about our ability to appreciate, acknowledge and value difference. Inclusion from a digital perspective means addressing difference when we are thinking about accessing or disseminating information online or when harnessing technology.

The Digital Inclusion Index in Australia measures three components: Internet Access including Technology and Data Allowance; Affordability; and Digital Ability – which addresses attitudes, basic skills and digital activities. It is evident that female gender, older age, Indigeneity and remote geography all play significant roles in digital exclusion with index scores in these areas well below the nation’s averages. We, as library and information professionals, need to be thinking about how we address accessibility and messaging and inclusion to remove barriers for all people in their information seeking and in the creation of new knowledge.

Whilst the internet has been transformative for most Australians, for the 10% of Australians who are not yet online the benefits of online access are unreachable. This disadvantage intersects with social and economic disadvantage, and as such this becomes an issue of social justice. According to the Australian Digital Inclusion Index (2018) ’Digital inclusion … [uses] technology as a channel to improve skills, to enhance quality of life, to drive education and to promote economic wellbeing across all elements of society’. In this same report Telstra CEO Andrew Penn, says ‘digital inclusion is now fundamental to full participation in our economic and social life and an ever-increasing number of essential and community services and other communications are going digital‘. The nation’s demographer Bernard Salt AM in a recent presentation about the future of work, stated that the importance of being tech savvy amongst other soft skills, is critical for work readiness in the future. He went on to point out that we are heading for a two-tiered society – with limited social mobility between the two tiers – a class society if you like, that we as a nation have never subscribed to historically. These tiers in Salt’s premise could be equated to the digital divide identified in the Digital Inclusion Index. The index indicates that lower levels of income, education and employment are all equated with significantly less digital inclusion. As a consequence, a substantial digital divide between the richer and the poorer is evident. The critical importance of digital inclusion if we are to prosper as a nation that provides a fair go for all, is therefore magnified.

The role that libraries can play in this arena is even more important than ever. As the gap widens, more stable jobs (and accompanying economic advantage), as well formal higher education are becoming increasingly out of reach for many, and inaccessible to others without the digital expertise required to succeed educationally and compete in a world of work. Research supports the notion that whilst most Australians have access online, people struggle to keep up with the rate of technological advancements, and relatively few people engage in more tech savvy activities. Libraries offer activities to keep people in touch with new innovations, build digital skills, and provide opportunities for volunteering and pathways into work. Providing targeted programs for marginalised groups; building skills through code clubs, robotics workshops and maker spaces; providing free Wi-Fi and internet access; and making sources of information freely available also support diversity and digital inclusion especially where internet access is limited by capability or the price of data.

The increase in capacity to process vast amounts of data and information is giving rise to machine learning and artificial intelligence. This increasing technological capacity is driving automation and efficiencies. In a world where 90% of all human data has been produced in the last two years we certainly need all the help we can get. Being able to navigate that data/information and to trust it to help solve some of the wicked problems the world is facing like those articulated in the UN Sustainable Development Goals s vital. People will need skills to be able to participate in an increasingly complex world of living and working and our success will depend on our ability to actively participate in that technologically driven landscape. Libraries have a role to play here as trusted professionals. We can support our users to navigate sources of data and curate and promote a broad range of data sources. This will help guard against manipulation by technology companies or others, and to expose people to a range of views.

If we fail to address the issues of digital exclusion we will leave behind not only the 10% of Australians who are not online currently, but additionally those who may be online but who are inadvertently excluded from much of the capability that comes with it, because of the exclusion that occurs in our blind spots. We must be alive to this challenge. Our role is paramount in helping to make that portal as wide and clear as possible fuelled by the integrity to welcome difference and celebrate diversity. It is then we will stem the digital divide and increase accessibility of truth and knowledge for all.