Digital Inclusion: You hold the keys to IT literacy

by Andy Robinson, Change Manager

During Sopra Steria’s Community Matters Week, held every October, my colleagues and I used our company volunteering time to provide an IT Gadget Surgery at Pinner Library in the London Borough of Harrow. The objective was to share basic IT skills with members of the local community. When we arrived at the library we were greeted with open arms by the library staff – some of whom had already brought in their own laptops so we could help them – as well as regular library users!

The lost generation and Radio Harrow

A journalist from the local radio station interviewed my colleagues Darren Kampta and Jutta Fischer. The interview was part of a report explaining how older people are having difficulty keeping up with changing technology and how companies like Sopra Steria can help. It’s a well-known fact that a lot of people, particularly the elderly, are losing touch with modern life and modern ways of socialising due to technology. The digital divide and digital exclusion are names given to the gap in terms of usage of information and communication technology (ICT)[1].

 The government’s Digital Inclusion Task Force has estimated that 6 million people in the UK (13%) are both socially and digitally excluded[2]. This has been proven to cause economic and social inequality, as 90% of jobs in the UK now require basic IT literacy[3]. From this research it is clear that having a basic understanding of IT and current technology is becoming more and more necessary in order to be a functioning member of today’s society.

It’s a small world

The most memorable person I helped was an older gentleman who had come prepared with a long list of issues he had with his laptop. One by one we crossed off the items and he noted down how to resolve the issue for future use. During the time I spent with him, I discovered we had a common interest in badminton. He had coached badminton up to England international level and it turned out one of the people he had coached, a former international player, was my badminton coach (and friend) from university. It was a great feeling knowing that I was now helping some who had indirectly influenced my life.

The Surgery

 The tasks brought to our team of five IT surgeons differed in complexity. These ranged from attaching a photo from a digital camera to an email and sending it, to fixing Microsoft Licencing issues. We were very happy with the uptake and there was barely a moment we weren’t busy! By the end of the day we’d helped tens of people with their technology queries. Although the tasks may have appeared simple to us, they could make a real difference to their lives by enabling them to share memories with their families, stay connected with their friends, or even to stay safe online. The day taught me to be patient when it comes to teaching people these new skills that perhaps aren’t as obvious to them as they are to us. I became much better at breaking down my explanations into logical steps and realised that in order for learning to take place, I had to get them doing the task themselves. The Pinner Library staff asked us if we would do something like this again in the future. We unanimously agreed that we would like to be involved in a project such as this again.

Community Matters Week 2017 at Harrow Council

Our time at the library was but one of dozens of charitable events undertaken by Sopra Steria staff as part of the company-wide Community Matters Week – one week every year focused on making a positive impact for our communities and charities around the UK. Other activities included The Marathon Challenge – a charity race against Harrow staff, The Barber Shop – two charity head shaves, Wear It Pink (People In Need of Kindness) day and the highly successful Harrow Bake Off/Bake Sale. Our team raised £2,340 for charity – one half of this went to The Mayors Special Appeal – this year it’s Harrow Women’s Centre and Harrow Law Centre, with the other half going to MacMillan Cancer Research.

Lessons learned

 I found that the volunteering at Pinner Library was highly rewarding. I felt as though I had really made a difference to the confidence of several people who had been struggling with technology. All five of us predicted prior to the day that we would mostly be helping older people, and the reasons are obvious: schools and workplaces now teach a basic level of IT literacy which their generation missed out on. Most of us take these skills for granted but we are surrounded by technical devices in everyday life and it is now essential for our social circles. The government’s Digital Inclusion Strategy has an aim to get everyone who can be digitally able, online by 2020[2]. After volunteering myself, this is a topic I now feel much more strongly about, and I will play my part to make sure digital inclusion is possible within the UK.

See more information about Sopra Steria’s work with communities.

References:

[1] 21st Century Challenges, 2013. What is digital divide.

[2] Gov.uk, 2014. Government digital inclusion strategy.

[3] Hilbert, M., 2013. Technological information inequality as an incessantly moving target: The redistribution of information and communication capacities between 1986 and 2010. Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology., I(65), p. 821–835.

Don’t forget the lampposts 

I was recently reviewing a ‘complete’ checklist for testing web applications but at no point in the list was accessibility even mentioned despite being quite thorough in other areas. I would like to try to kid myself that this was just an oversight but it is sadly all too common even though it has been a legal requirement for well over a decade. Of course, a legal requirement where enforcement is practically unheard of is rarely a motivation for an organisation to spend more money on something. That being said, there is strong evidence of the real business benefit to accessible services and information being available to the ten million disabled people in the UK (two million of which have sight problems), but that would be a whole other article.

When testing for accessibility is carried out, it is done so to a set of guidelines. The W3C[1] WAI[2] WCAG 2.0[3] are widely regarded as the guidelines to use, with the middle road AA standard the most sought after level. While the AA standard is quite adequate for the majority (AAA is better and readily achievable with a little extra effort), testing relying solely on the guidelines does not guarantee the final product is accessible and usable. It is entirely possible to have an accessible website that is very difficult to use.

When I was a child, my mother used to paint the front door of our house a bright colour in the belief, unbeknownst to me, that this was necessary for me to be able to find my way home from school. When I asked about our door and this was explained to me I thought that it was a really silly reason and promptly told her, “You just need to count the lampposts”.

This may seem like quite a bizarre anecdote to throw into a web accessibility article. However, my point is that…

just because you expect someone to do something one way does not mean they have not already found their own preferred way to do it.

The same applies to people with disabilities accessing websites and applications. The developers may intend a site/app to be accessed in a specific way but, particularly for non-visual users, the content order and methods they use will be quite different and vary upon personal preference.

Your test team can ensure the site/app designs follow the WAI guidelines, and that your content authors are trained in how to maintain the accessibility standards of your site/app but until you perform real user testing you will not know if you have completely succeeded in your goal.

There is no substitute for having a couple dozen people test your site with various technologies and tell you all the things that annoy them about it, as they will all do so in a slightly different way.

Many of the issues that arise during accessibility testing come from developers not being properly trained in HTML features for accessibility and implementing them incorrectly, which only serves to aggravate the user and drive them away from the site. This has become a particular problem with the increasing reliance on JavaScript without proper alternatives in place and most recently the use of ARIA[4] in HTML 5. ARIA has many potential benefits, particularly for fast navigation using screen readers, but when implemented poorly it can render a site extremely unpleasant to use.

Having worked in accessibility testing for over 13 years and having a lifetime’s experience of visual impairment I can’t help but feel depressed at times at how little regard is given to web accessibility.

The need for systems to be fully accessible will only increase due to the growth in essential services being provided via web applications.

With a little training and care, it is simple to implement accessibility at early development stages, thus providing a superior product that will benefit the customer and users alike (and fewer headaches for myself will be a nice bonus too).

If you have any comments about this topic, please a reply below or contact me by email.

Footnotes

[1] World Wide Web Consortium
[2] Web Accessibility Initiative
[3] Web Content Accessibility Guidelines 2.0
[4] Accessible Rich Internet Applications

Digital inclusion in the spotlight

Today (19th May) is the Global Accessibility Awareness Day (GAAD) and therefore a good reason to celebrate positive developments in this area. Recently there was an announcement from the European Commission that a new directive has been successfully negotiated, which mandates that public sector websites and apps are made more accessible. The above agreement is expected to be approved soon formally by the EU parliament and council, following which the member countries will have 21 months to convert it in to national legislation.

While it remains to be seen how quickly the directive gets converted into legislation, what is evident is that the political will behind this topic is gaining momentum in the European region, which gives reason to rejoice for those rooting for accessibility as a topic. For those more used to traditional references about accessibility, it should be highlighted that it is now considered part of the bigger title of “Digital Inclusion”. This area is, thankfully, getting a lot more attention as part of the drive for a Digital Single Market for the European region. Reduced operational costs, increased user satisfaction and better customer reach are just some of the key benefits that the experts have found this realises – in every sphere of business. It is apparent that the concerned policy makers of the EU commission are convinced about it.

Of course the upcoming referendum on 23rd June might change the course for the UK and, as a result, the relevance of legislation proposed by the EU commission might diminish.

Irrespective of the outcome of the referendum, the question we have before us is are we, or are we not, committed to being digitally inclusive?

We perhaps have a bit of soul searching to do as a technical / business community as to why we still have a strong prevalence of poor accessibility in websites. Why does this topic lack a voice in most discussions? Why is it so low down the priority list in every domain? Why does the disappointment for end users with disabilities not bother us? Why have we become comfortable with the inequality in this space?

In my opinion, every website is a service and this side of technology is way behind when it comes to digital inclusion. The designs built, websites developed and tested without much thought or consideration to the full spectrum of users is actually a form of discrimination that we are all a part of – often in complete ignorance, or due to project pressures or a misguided attempt to save costs. Do we realise how many sales will be lost due to inaccessibility, or how difficult it gets to complete online applications for crucial government services, or how companies fail to recruit talented people due to inaccessible job adverts?

Hopefully decisions like the one above will make this a more compelling factor to consider for service providers. Perhaps it is now time for all of us to put our hands up and get behind this topic, make it a priority in our immediate environment, and try to influence the decision makers to think about it. Not because it is a call from the EU, but for our fellow disadvantaged citizens, to reach out to them and give them the full opportunity to be a part of the on-going digital evolution.

There has been a positive update closer to home on this front, with Sopra Steria Recruitment recently announced as the new sponsor of the Business Disability Forum’s Recruitment Service Provider charter. Here’s to such measures which bring hope, good will and inclusivity in the world of technology!

Why I signed the Digital Inclusion Charter

Like so many others, I spent most of my commute this morning in the digital world – powered by the smartphone technology in my hand and the invisible tendrils of communication in the air all around us.

As I left the house, I remembered my still snoozing son was collecting an award at his school this morning so sent him a message of support and a request for excited updates later in the day.  A quick check of the transport network showed my train was on time, but I was not – so I picked up my walking pace to ensure I didn’t miss it.  Once on the train, a reminder prompted me to pay an outstanding bill – a few clicks, then done.  Leaving time to review my diary for the day, coordinate a weekend outing with a few friends via Facebook (clearly I’m getting old) and manage a quick scan of various  news-feeds all before the train pulled into London.  Whilst walking to catch my usual bus, my Fitbit app pings me – I am close to hitting my weekly step target but need to push – so I ditch the bus and decide to walk to the office instead!

Many of us will have our own variations on this kind of journey – each with different apps, activities and platforms supporting the engagements we choose – but all with the common thread that being ‘being connected’ is now a ubiquitous part of our daily lives.

Being connected feels great…

Being connected feels like the future…

Being connected empowers us to make more efficient use of our time and more informed choices…

… and of course it now drives our expectations.  When our retailers began offering online services, we expected our banks to.  And when they did, why not our insurers, our healthcare providers, our travel agents,  our schools?  Now we expect it everywhere, including our Public Services.

Millions of people interact with government every year. We pay our taxes and apply for tax credits. We look for jobs and make benefit claims. We need passports and driving licenses. Last year over 1.7 billion government transactions were completed at a cost of £7.1 billion and over three quarters of those transactions were completed online.

This is great news for those who are connected… BUT there are over 7 million adults in the UK who are not. Over 7 million adults defined as digitally excluded, primarily because of a lack of access to the internet.

7 million people. That’s why we’ve signed the Government’s Digital Inclusion Charter

There are digitally excluded people within all communities of the UK but older people and those that are economically disadvantaged are more likely to be so.  There are also 11 million adults in the UK who need some assistance to interact with government online.

The implications for government are enormous.  The estimated benefit to the UK economy of getting one million new people online (assuming 70% become regular internet users) is £1.5 billion. If we enabled the digitally excluded to change just one of the interactions that they have with government from a face-to-face or paper interaction to an online interaction the government would save £900 million a year.

The implications for society are equally significant.  Every consumer who is online saves on average £560 a year by shopping around and looking at deals.  The poorest families could save over £300 if they were online[4]. Children who do not have access to the internet are at a disadvantage – over a million children’s exam results will be on average a grade lower than their peers every year because they do not have internet access at home.

Severe implications. That’s why we’ve signed the Government’s Digital Inclusion Charter

In our day jobs at Sopra Steria we deliver technology and business services across the public sector trying to help government make all our lives better and safer.  Across both public and private sector,  we have great staff with valuable digital skills and an in-depth understanding of the needs of their many users in many walks of life. Underpinning that, sustainability has been a core part of our ethos in Sopra Steria for many years.

  • We actively support local communities with initiatives including working with local schools to support their technology education programmes, encouraging girls to consider careers in IT,  offering technology and business apprenticeships to local young people, supporting communities and charities through our annual Community Matters activities, and in India, helping improve the lives of over 66,000 children by giving them access to education – including IT education
  • We’ve cut our carbon emissions by 48% in 6 years, made all our Datacentre services CarbonNeutral® by default since 2013 and scored a perfect score of 100A in CDP Climate Change in both 2013 and 2014 – joining the CDP’s  ‘A List Report’ as a result
  • We are also an active member and sponsor of Digital Leaders in the UK and work with that community looking at all aspects of the Digital Transformation agenda including the challenges of digital exclusion

All of our experiences and initiatives have shown us the real difference people can make when they work together – the digital inclusion challenge cannot be solved by any single person or organisation alone, but I believe it can be solved by many people and organisations working together…

We must fix it together. That’s why we’ve signed the Government’s Digital Inclusion Charter

Are you signing the Digital Inclusion Charter? Leave a message below or contact me by email.