Philanthropy and the Digital Divide

Expert opinion

The coronavirus pandemic is creating change at an unprecedented scale. The digital backbone of videoconferencing, broadband and social media is allowing most of us to respond to the crisis, keep informed and keep working. This would not have been possible before digital. If we were in the times of the Spanish flu, we would not have had such rapid information, we would not have been able to shut down at short notice the world and move on working digitally. So we are all experiencing how digital infrastructure is critical to operations in our daily lives.

However, the digital divide to the disadvantage of the vulnerable has become more apparent: and the role of philanthropists is crucial to close this gap.

Why Philanthropy needs to embrace Digital Transformation?

Let’s take schools and what is happening in education during coronavirus in the UK as an example.

A survey done by Teacherstapp on March 26th on 6700 teachers across the country shows that 28% of private schools had online videoconferencing with students vs 2% of state schools, 26% private schools were engaging with students through online chatting vs 6% state schools.

The digital divide will affect disproportionally the most vulnerable — as an estimated average across the country of 10% of children may not have access to devices or data needed for digital access.

Philanthropy is essential to resolve for the digital divide that manifests itself in many different forms: from the need of digital infrastructure for basic services to digital literacy for front line service providers to basics like devices and data for a part of the population currently excluded.

Why digitally transform the third sector?

Compared to the private sector, the third sector has mostly been left behind by the biggest advantages brought by digital transformation as the cost of capital required is significant both in accessing the technology, and developing the capabilities to deploy it and use it.

We will get soon to a place where services that do not have a proper digital backbone will be very expensive to deliver: charities and third sector will be particularly affected by it — many will find themselves in a catch 22 — too busy to find funding to keep their services running, with the costs of running the service increasing and no time or capital to build the adequate infrastructure.

We would need more infrastructure initiatives, perhaps backed by a consortium of philanthropists to create shared multitenant platforms as it is not feasible for each charity to have to tackle this separately.

At the Collaborative Technology Initiative, we have created a lab where we tested in vitro how digital transformation could support the third sector.
Our findings point to the fact that the advantages would be significant, however, the capital is not there to build the infrastructure required separately for every single charity or third sector provider.

To date, philanthropists’ attention has not been focused on the long term digital sustainability of operations of services provided to the vulnerable.

In the same way that digital transformation is making its way as a key boardroom topic, we need to ensure digital transformation gets the appropriate attention, in the right way, among philanthropists.

Advisors play a crucial role to frame digital transformation strategically and not as a tactical solution. We need to refocus from simple application build to the need of multitenant tech platforms for tech, capability build as well as user training.

A lot of attention is on impact and scale. Without a proper digital backbone is hard to achieve impact and scale.

How can technology help alleviate various societal issues?

Technology can have a large positive impact on the vulnerable. For example, we know that in the UK According to the Children’s Commissioner, nearly 1.6m children in UK are vulnerable but are not receiving any support. This is likely to impact negatively their academic outcomes, setting them for a difficult start in life.

According to teachers, a number of tutoring apps (like MathsWatch for example), which enable teachers to augment lessons digitally and support students in their homework, have a very positive impact on academic outcomes for all children and in particular, vulnerable children. However, not all schools have budgets for it, and in those who do, teachers may not necessarily have the training needed to use them and a percentage of children may not have devices or data: this is one of many examples where philanthropy could play a bigger role to correct for the digital divide.

Not all tech is good tech however, ethical considerations need to be put at the forefront to mitigate risks posed by any programs or any technology. However, the right governance will bring good outcomes. Overall, we will need to move the focus more on closing the gap on the digital divide, particularly the impact for the younger generations and focus more philanthropic efforts to build long-lasting infrastructure.

Digital transformation needs to have a more strategic approach in philanthropy in order to reduce the digital divide and make technology, digital and data work for the vulnerable.