University of Bristol: Bristol report calls for action to tackle the digital divide as research during COVID-19 lockdown exposes digital inequality

The team surveyed more than 5,000 residents of Knowle West about their experience of digital technologies during the first COVID-19 lockdown. They found negative impacts that could shape educational outcomes, job opportunities or access to essential services.

The result is a policy paper which sets out how Bristol could drive initiatives to reduce the digital divide, particularly in areas of multiple deprivation.

Although the survey, carried out in May and June 2020, revealed household internet connectivity in Knowle West is high, researchers discovered several persistent challenges:

People experiencing multiple inequalities – low income, precarious employment, health conditions and food poverty – were particularly disadvantaged by digital disparities during lockdown, as information and services shifted online, and support networks were cut off.
Only 47 per cent of those who needed a laptop/PC for homeschooling had access to one.
Residents without internet access quoted a range of factors, including cost (50 per cent of respondents), confidence (45 per cent), skills (45 per cent), privacy and security concerns (45 per cent).
Professor Susan Halford, Co-Director of Bristol Digital Futures Institute, a University of Bristol research institute that is creating digital technology for more inclusive futures, said: “Bristol is a leader in digital innovation, but social and economic inequalities mean that effects of this are uneven and – in some cases – these inequalities are exacerbated by the shift to digital. This issue was magnified during lockdown and will persist if it’s not tackled.”

Dr Helen Manchester, University of Bristol Reader in Digital Inequalities and Urban Futures, added: “Thanks to the contributions from the people of Knowle West, our research provides an evidence base for communities, government and businesses to drive change for more inclusive, sustainable and prosperous digital futures.”

The report calls on local and national policymakers to respond with targeted action, including:

making it compulsory for providers to offer cheaper deals for lower-income households
for public services to rapidly identify children without adequate digital resources such as devices, access to high-speed internet, and data.
a publicly available map of connectivity across the city, to highlight low connectivity areas for priority action.
Carolyn Hassan, of Knowle West Media Centre, added: ”The research highlights the need for investment in community led solutions to address the digital divide and we look forward to working local and national decision makers to make that a reality.”

The survey is currently being extended to other communities across Bristol, starting with the Black South West Network and Babbasa, a social enterprise which supports young people to realise their education and employment ambitions.

Mayor of Bristol Marvin Rees said: “This new research published today underlines the importance of tackling digital inequality, and understanding the pervasive impact of digital poverty.

“That’s why we are working in a One City partnership with organisations and individuals in our communities to tackle the digital divide in our city. Working with Bristol Waste, we are aiming to recycle and re-distribute around 4,000 council laptops. Our hope is that by making it easier for people to have access to digital technology, alongside the relevant skills, we can help people stay connected, find new opportunities and make sure people are not left behind.”

The team now plans to re-create the survey in Knowle West, to understand how the picture of digital inequality has changed one year on.

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