Digital inclusion and the digital divide

It’s not a topic that gets enough of a focus in our hyper internet connected country. It’s estimated that 91% of Canadians have access to the internet. However, according to the Toronto Public Library “The CRTC reports that only 59 percent of low income households have internet access at home. People who do not have internet access at home are at a disadvantage, and we have a role to play in helping to close the digital divide.” 

ACORN Canada has done some useful research on internet use and accessibility for low-income Canadians: “The results of the survey reveal that the internet plays an important role in the everyday lives of low-income earners; however, the high costs of obtaining high-speed home internet connections can lead to unnecessary hardship. Respondents who struggle to afford home internet access detailed the detrimental effect this has on: job searching and job retention; school work (at the primary, secondary, and post-secondary levels) and related academic achievement benchmarks; access to information on healthcare and nutrition; access to and understanding of government forms and processes; and civic and social participation.” and they’ve helped advocate for the “Connecting Families program targets National Child Benefit recipients and provides 10mbps internet with 100gb usage for $10 per month. Around 220,000 households – up to 600,000 people – are expected to benefit, keeping approximately $80million in the pockets of low-income parents.” 

It’s not a new issue in Canada, but one that requires constant vigilance as “low income Canadians… are being kept (or pushed) offline by unaffordable high-speed Internet fees, low speed targets and data capping, as well as cuts to adult and community literacy programs that were once hubs of digital learning.”

But what is digital inclusion? This is a long quote from a relatively short article, but it does the job for me: “We traced the transformation of this conversation since the 1990s, when many still talked about a binary ‘Digital Divide,’ to the present day, when digital access inequality is thought of in terms of a more complex set of factors. Digital inequalities are still reflected in access to tools – for example, do you have always-on broadband connectivity in your home, workplace, and on your mobile device? Do you have occasional access to a slower connection, that’s more highly filtered (say, at school or in a public library)? Or perhaps your primary access point is via an internet cafe or a mobile phone? Jack Qiu talks about this in terms of the ‘Information Have-Less;’ he’s writing in the Chinese context, but many of his insights are applicable anywhere. However, the debates formerly framed in terms of the ‘Digital Divide’ have also shifted beyond tools, to emphasize the reality that there is a wide range of access in terms of digital media literacies, networks of friends and family who are able to support these literacies, and so on.

For Civic Media practitioners, persistent access inequality poses troubling questions. If we simply create digital tools and platforms that are designed to enable civic engagement without paying attention to digital inequality, we may end up reproducing, or even deepening, other forms of power inequality.

We know that race, class, gender, age, and geographic location (among other factors) all shape people’s access to digital connectivity, tools, skills, and support networks; Ezster Hargittai points out in her article “The Digital Reproduction of Inequality” that if we’re not careful, digital inequalities are not only produced by, but also can reproduce, other kinds of inequality. For example, it might seem commonsense that we would replace face to face registration systems with web-based ones; following this logic, we might build a beautiful web application that provides easy access to registration for services for elders. However, if we’re talking about a limited service and low-income elders aren’t on the broadband net, they may suddenly find themselves at the back of the line, behind middle- and upper-income folks who snapped up the best times using your oh-so-friendly web app.”

Closer to home “The Government of Ontario defines it as: “the aim of interventions which seek to increase access, remove barriers, develop skills and empower people who might be otherwise marginalized and excluded from the design and use of digital technologies.” Digital inclusion aims to “ensure that everyone can benefit from digital technologies in their lives.””This quote comes from a report on Ontario’s first Digital Inclusion Summit back in February 2019. Worth some time.

Given income inequality and poverty trends among newcomers, especially those from racialized groups,  along with trends towards increased digital service provision across sectors, it should be a concern to us that, while newcomer clients can be among the most digitally literate and connected, they can be among the most vulnerable and still remain digitally, socially, and economically isolated.

So, what’s your role as an immigrant and refugee-serving agency? 

“How can digital inclusion be important when we’re also dealing with homelessness, food insecurity, poverty, and families in crisis? The answer: Digital inclusion is a part of every battle. The shifting of information from the physical to the digital form makes it so. To fully participate in education, access community resources, and be a part of the democratic process, people must have access to the internet, working devices, and technical skills.”  This article provides some steps:

  • Map out how information is reaching your clients. 
  • Look for opportunities to transform competing priorities into complementary priorities
  • Train staff to see digital inclusion as a part of their toolkit of solutions

You should focus on the 5 A’s of Technology Access:

  • Availability – Availability is not only about availability of connectivity, it is also about availability of relevant content in local languages and the availability of adaptive and assistive technologies for people with disabilities
  • Affordability – Even if technology access is available for some people, it may not be affordable.
  • Awareness – be aware of digital governance initiatives, such as the Connecting Families program
  • Ability – Even when availability, affordability, and awareness are high, a person’s ability to make effective use of a technology can be limited by a lack of digital literacy, skills, or knowledge. Do you and your clients have the skills?
  • Agency – Even for those marginalized people who experience civic technologies as available and affordable, and for whom awareness and abilities are no restriction, agency (the extent to which a person’s feels able to act in the world to bring about change or what a person is able to do in line with their conception of the good) may remain a formidable barrier.

It’s not just you. This is also a public policy advocacy issue: “There’s also a research and policy gap. It’s not merely about knowing that digital divides are real, but understanding at the ground level how they affect particular groups, communities, regions and individuals so that governments and other stakeholders can adapt. In a world where people debate big and small government, it’s about deciding, together, what our collective responsibility is to each other — and how digital provides both new opportunities and challenges in upholding that responsibility.” 

If we don’t take and ensure policy-makers uphold that responsibility we risk perpetuating existing inequalities: “Although technology benefits our societies, we must be wary of letting its effects play out unrestrained, especially given the current high levels of inequality around the world. To ensure technology delivers for all, people’s well-being must be placed at the centre of public policy.”  

Because digital inclusion requires investments: “NetHope-led Syrian Refugee Connectivity Alliance installed internet and charging station solutions in 98 sites in Greece, Northern Macedonia, Slovenia, and Serbia, with the majority in Greece between November 2015 and December 2016. With initial funding, technical and equipment assistance and expertise provided by Cisco, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, and The Patterson Foundation, over 1 million users have benefited from these services which have been critical on these migrants’ long and perilous journey to safety and normalcy.”

And we need to check our language to make sure we all mean the same thing: “In May 2016, digital inclusion practitioners, advocates, academics, Internet service providers, and policymakers gathered in Kansas City at Net Inclusion: The National Digital Inclusion Summit and a funny thing happened on our way to the library: we discovered we were speaking different languages.” 

Learn from others in the sector doing interesting work around digital literacy with clients AND with staff. And learn from other jurisdictions: “Taylor said not having internet access at home or in neighborhoods prevents people from completing essential tasks, such as applying for a job, paying bills, or discussing a child’s school performance with a teacher. Even engaging in local government is a challenge without reliable web access, Taylor added. As a result, people without adequate digital access do not get to share educational and workforce skills with others, she explained.”

Additional Resources

Digital Divide in Canada:

Recent research:

Access efforts:

Examples of device donation programs:


Some definitions of digital equity:

Digital divide in Canada – Demographics and the second level digital divide (Wikipedia)
Aside from monetary factors (income & bandwidth price, data caps, & urban/rural high speed access), demographic differences within Canada have also resulted in disparity regarding online connectivity and information & communication technology use. Variables such as education, age, language & culture can play a role in what is considered to be the second level digital divide, where even though a person may have access to high speed internet and the ICTs required to connect to it, their ability to make effective use of them is at a disadvantage compared to more educated or digitally literate groups. The digital divide in Canada is no longer just a question of those who have access to ICTs and those who don’t, but rather bridging gaps pertaining to the second level digital divide is becoming increasingly important as resources including health care access, government documents, and businesses transition to an online space, meaning that digital literacy and technological understanding will be a key factor in the future for ensuring access to such things.

From the National Digital Inclusion Alliance (U.S.)

Digital Equity

Digital Equity is a condition in which all individuals and communities have the information technology capacity needed for full participation in our society, democracy and economy. Digital Equity is necessary for civic and cultural participation, employment, lifelong learning, and access to essential services.

Digital Inclusion

Digital Inclusion refers to the activities necessary to ensure that all individuals and communities, including the most disadvantaged, have access to and use of Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs). This includes 5 elements: 

  1. affordable, robust broadband internet service; 
  2. internet-enabled devices that meet the needs of the user; 
  3. access to digital literacy training; 
  4. quality technical support; and 
  5. applications and online content designed to enable and encourage self-sufficiency, participation and collaboration. Digital Inclusion must evolve as technology advances. 

Digital Inclusion requires intentional strategies and investments to reduce and eliminate historical, institutional and structural barriers to access and use technology.

What is Digital Equity (from the Handbook of Research on Mobile Technology, Constructivism, and Meaningful Learning)

  1. Refers to equal access and opportunity to digital tools, resources, and services to increase digital knowledge, awareness, and skills. Learn more in: Mobile Technology Integration and Student Learning Outcomes 
  2. The equal access and opportunity that individuals and diverse groups of race, ethnicity, socio-economic class, language, gender, and other culturally diverse groups possess. Learn more in: Technology Integration Models for Digital Equity 
  3. Promoting and designing services that provide all members of the community with access to online information and the skills and tools to access, use, and evaluate online content. Learn more in: Community Outreach 
  4. Broad, encompassing formulation of digital inequality taking into account not only inequalities in terms of resources and opportunities but also inequalities in terms of constraints under which given groups of people have to perform. Equitable situations take into account the equal distribution of opportunities and constrains. Learn more in: New Media Literacy and the Digital Divide 
  5. Equal access and opportunity to digital tools, resources, and services to increase digital knowledge, awareness, and skills. Learn more in: The Emergence of Cloud Portfolio in Higher Education 
  6. Refers to the equal access and opportunity that individuals and within diverse groups of race, ethnicity, socio-economic class, language, gender, and other culturally diverse groups possess. Learn more in: Teacher Education and Digital Equity: Research in the Millennium 

Ensuring equitable access to instructional and educational technology despite factors such as income, race/ethnicity, gender, age, disability status, and residence in urban and rural areas. Learn more in: Digital Inequity: Understanding the Divide as it Relates to Culture and Disability

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