New research is needed to draw a detailed map of digital inclusion across the UK if cross-sector programmes are to successfully close a deepening digital divide, the new head of digital skills charity Go ON UK has said.
"We still lack a crystal clear picture of digital use and non-use in the UK", Rachel Neaman told delegates at "Digital evolution: leaving no-one behind", the annual conference of non-profit mutual Tinder Foundation.
"This is not easy, and it will take significant time, resource and investment. But the benefits would be far-reaching and truly transformational for everyone working in this space. Should every local authority, and every MP know how many people lack basic digital skills in their area and constituency? Could we produce a national heat map, to provide competition and incentive for new policy in run-up to the election?
"To succeed with hyperlocal delivery we need to know exactly where those people are."
However, organisations working on digital inclusion should not look to divert large amounts of funding from front line activity to research, Neaman said. Instead, she would be looking to her charity's corporate partners - which include banks, telecoms companies and the Post Office - to help build a detailed national picture.
"We want to use our partners more, who have greater networks and understanding on the ground. We need a partnership for better research and better outcomes."
New partnerships for digital inclusion could also be built with other sectors who would stand to gain revenues and business as more people come online, she said. "We need the creative industries, media, retail to understand there is a huge market not engaging with their goods and services."
A clearer, more scientific approach must also be applied in assessing which inclusion activities are the most successful, Neaman said.
"We need to focus more on measuring and evaluating specific targeted outcomes. We can identify the most effective programmes and delivery models, and scale these up for greatest impacts."
Asked whether existing social exclusion measures could not simply be used as a proxy for digital exclusion, since the latter most often coincides with other deprivation factors, Neaman said such an approach would be incomplete.
"If we use social exclusion as a proxy for digital exclusion there is absolutely a correlation", she said. "But if we start to look more deeply we start to see exceptions... there will also be people in affluent area who have connectivity, but don't have the skills and the motivation."
Traditional methods of mapping digital exclusion generally overlook rural areas as well, since they are sparsely populated, said Emily Harbron, community development worker at A1 Community Works, a social enterprise in Richmondshire in North Yorkshire.
Harbron told the conference that current government policy on broadband access and digital inclusion is focused on cities, while 20% of the population live in rural areas.
"There is nothing for these people. There are being forgotten."
Tinder Foundation chief executive Helen Milner told the conference that the economic arguments for rooting out all pockets of digital exclusion, however small, have been proven by research published by her organisation earlier this year.
In February, Tinder Foundation published research which assessed the cost of training everyone in the UK with basic digital skills by 2020 at £875m, while government estimates online of savings from transferring public services online run at £1.7bn, Milner said. If no new action is taken however, there will still be 6.2m people lacking digital skills in 2020, she said.
"We've done the sums - the benefits are so much greater than the cost that there is really no excuse to leave anybody behind."
In open discussion, it emerged that the Government Digital Service has a research group working on digital inclusion statistics, which aims to publish a report in January which could fill some of the research gaps highlighted by Rachel Neaman.
Neaman said she was aware of the work, and that "some of that will help" - but warned that while digital inclusion work in recent years has been successful in giving more and more people basic skills, the rate of progress was now slowing down with millions of UK citizens still offline.
"The fact that the rate is slowing down means current approaches may not be effective at reaching the hardest to reach. The reality is the divide is not necessarily getting wider, but it is getting deeper."
Pictured: No Wi-Fi here? Isolated Tree, Cabin Hill in Richmondshire, North Yorkshire by Mick Garratt / Geograph.org.uk
Tinder Foundation: www.tinderfoundation.org