London’s Chief Digital Officer Theo Blackwell will lead a new taskforce to tackle digital exclusion across the capital – addressing connectivity, devices and skills. The group includes councils, charities and telecom operators.
A priority for the team, set up by Mayor Sadiq Khan and London Councils, will be to comprehensively map out device and connectivity gaps. In his draft budget, the Mayor has allocated £1.5 million (US$2.05 million) over the next two years for work with the London Office of Technology and Innovation (LOTI) on this.
During the pandemic, many children and adults who don’t have a reliable internet connection or the right devices have found themselves locked out of access to learning, jobs and social contact.
London leaders are asking individuals and organisations to donate old devices to charities for upcycling. The city has also been working with London Grid for Learning (LGfL) on device provision but says the challenge remains “huge”, noting that some equipment takes several weeks to arrive from the supplier.
The UK government recently announced a scheme to supply digital devices. Khan says he has written to the Secretary of State for Education, Gavin Williamson, calling on him to urgently do more to meet demand.
Research in January by the Sutton Trust and Teacher Tapp shows that only 10 percent of schools across the country reported all their pupils having a laptop. Ofcom estimates that up to 1.78 million UK children lack access to a laptop, desktop or tablet at home – and more than 880,000 live in a household with only a mobile internet connection.
The new taskforce’s work will support the London Recovery Programme which has nine missions, including ensuring every Londoner has access to good connectivity, basic digital skills and the device or support they need to be online by 2025.
Khan said: “The pandemic and the restrictions to limit the spread of the virus will continue to have a profound impact on all our lives. But I’m determined to work with organisations across the capital to do everything possible to ensure children are able to gain a good education despite of the challenges we all face.”
The Digital Exclusion Taskforce includes the boroughs of Ealing, Croydon, Newham, Southwark and Brent, as well as Nominet Trust; Age UK; HEAR; BT; and Vodafone.
Cities around the world are similarly scrambling to close their digital divides – with many prioritising urgent help for school children while at the same time taking steps to understand their gaps in more detail to tackle the issue longer term. The latter challenge has seen several innovative approaches in the US. Philadelphia issued an RFP and indicated particular interest in proposals that make sophisticated use of commercial data modelling and artificial intelligence. Meanwhile, Shreveport hacked together ‘Wi-Fi sensors’ and sent them out on rubbish trucks to generate a map of how many households have paid-for Internet services.