Not-Equal - Democratising access to digital technology and services

Friday, August 7, 2020

As part of the HCI Summer Festival, Not-Equal ran a panel asking how we can work towards the democratisation of access to digital technologies, particularly in response to how communities can work around COVID-19 restrictions.

Not-Equal is a UKRI funded NetworkPlus, hosted within Open Lab aiming to foster new collaborations in order to create the conditions for digital technology to support social justice, reaching both academic and non-academic communities, including third sector and community organisations across the country.

Responding to the COVID-19 disruption

Since COVID-19 broke out, Not-Equal has engaged with these organisations to find out what challenges they are facing as they have tried to continue to work with the communities they support.

While these organisations have reacted in remarkable ways in response to the crisis, unsurprisingly, unequal digital access—in terms of skills, access to hardware, data and/or patchy internet connection, for both providers and beneficiaries - was a really significant issue. This was also increased by the sudden lack of the social connections, care and solidarity that play such an important role in enabling digital access, community centres or various spaces of congregation.

The sudden move to using digital meant that while some people disappeared, new people began using particular services, because of the digital offer. Some organisations also spoke about their concerns relating to digital wellbeing; how to ensure the safety and security of both providers and users.

While the digitalisation of service is an ongoing project, the experience of the pandemic brought a renewed and critical sense of the importance to realise digital access that works for all, and for different people, that enables them to benefit from it. But a Digital Access that works for people, maybe understood as something that is necessarily co-created in ways that respond to the particularities of people’s needs and their circumstances.

Democratising digital access for communities

This session aimed to foster a discussion around ways in which we can democratise digital access and work together and with people across institutions and organisations to create the conditions that enable the adapting, contesting and shaping of our digital futures so that people can benefit from them.

This session was facilitated by the Not-Equal Director Clara Crivellaro, who was joined by three Not-Equal partners to explore some of the insights gained through the Not-Equal conversations and talk about their own experiences through these strange times. The panelists included: Lizzie Coles-Kemp - Royal Holloway University of London, Froilan LegaspiCitizens UK and James NicholsonNorthumbria University.

Digital security for all

Lizzie is a qualitative researcher who uses creative engagement methods to explore everyday practices of information sharing and protection. Lizzie is currently an EPSRC research fellow with a research programme in everyday security and digital service design.

As a Co-Investigator on the Not-Equal project, Lizzie described Not-Equal’s perspective on ‘digital security for all’ through four principles:

  • We should design systems for people, not vice versa. The technology needs to resonate with the individual.
  • The logic for access has to be fair and just. Granting access should be a clear, transparent and accountable process.
  • Access control, more often the access happens in the background network. Many things need to be in place for someone to gain access, e.g. someone to help understand the systems, but this support is not always available, and it should be.
  • Issues of access need to be addressed from the user’s point of view, not expert’s.

Lizzie also noted an additional challenge brought about by the pandemic, we need to find new none face to face ways to bring people together to discuss these issues and challenges.

Five steps to social change

Froilan Legaspi is a community organiser at Citizens UK where he develops social justice campaigns on various issues. Froi is a partner in the Not-Equal funded project, Civic innovation in community: safety, policing, and trust with young people (CinCity).

This project explores smart city technologies and knife crime in collaboration with young people, in order to understand the multiple dimensions of this issue and develop a platform for young people’s voices to influence a public health approach to the problem.

Froi voiced some of the challenges his communities have faced throughout this pandemic and how he is using the Citizens UK ‘5 Steps to Social Change’ to guide his was through this.

The five steps are:

  1. Organise
  2. Listen
  3. Plan
  4. Act
  5. Negotiate

Along this journey he has noticed how life for community groups has been dramatically changed by COVID-19 and many are in crisis. He also noted that many of these communities are trying to innovate with missing pieces, e.g. they need experts to advise them or funds to continue to roll out these alternative activities.

In terms of the five steps, they are currently in between Plan and Act. One of the suggestions for Act, is to campaign for pro-bono hours for local useful companies e.g. tech companies or web designers. These community groups have acted fast but most need assistance to sustain their activities.

Cybersecurity guardians for their local community

James Nicholson is a Lecturer in the School of Computer and Information Sciences at Northumbria University. James is interested in many aspects of cybersecurity and privacy, including usable security, people’s understanding of cybersecurity, everyday surveillance, and inclusive cybersecurity.

James leads the Not-Equal funded project Cyberguardians. This project explores ways to support older digital users in becoming cybersecurity guardians for their local community and to organically train other older users in this practice.

COVID-19 has presented additional challenges to this group, which the Cyberguardians have responded well to. James’ team worked with the Cyberguardians to develop a guide to Zoom for older users, which they have now delivered online to peers in their communities.

This guide has enabled older people to feel confident using this package and they feel safe in doing so. It has also built the confidence of the Cyberguardians themselves and has enabled them to advertise and recruit more people to the original Cyberguardian sessions. Overall, the Cyberguardians have received amazing feedback both through appreciation emails and success stories of trainees using Zoom and feeling comfortable online in general.

These insights sparked much discussion, where attendees explored: how the move to online could be positive for some communities and groups; the challenges of online delivery such as hidden costs, insufficient hardware and use of bandwidth; designing tools and processes with access in mind; adapting to the COVID-19 situation efficiently and effectively, not one size fits all; maintaining relationships with vulnerable groups and; digital access as a right not a privilege.

You can read the overview of the Not-Equal COVID conversations here.

The Not-Equal panel at the HCI Summer festival.

Illustrations are all ©Alice Angus 2020 licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivative 4.0 International Public License (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0)